Photo Credit: Ken Kassens

By Jeffrey Stern

In an effort to ensure a consistent interval play-to-play and game-to-game, the NFHS Football Rules Committee adopted the 40-second play clock beginning with the 2019 season. The change came after leaders in Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee and Colorado reported positive results of experiments regarding the modified play clock. The play clock was the most significant of seven rule changes passed by the committee at its meeting Jan. 13-16 in Indianapolis.

The caseplays in this column are presented by Referee to explain the changes but are unofficial. Check NFHS publications for official interpretations. The changes are presented in approximate order of importance.

Play Clock 2-35-1 a and b (NEW), 3-6-1, 3-6-2, 7-2-1

There are instances in which the referee will give the ready-for-play signal and the 25-second play clock begins as in the past. The 25-second play clock is used before a try following a score; to start a period or overtime series; following administration of an inadvertent whistle; following a charged timeout; and following an officials timeout for the following reasons:

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  • For a measurement.
  • Following a change of team possession.
  • When captains and coaches are notified of the time remaining.
  • For a player in need of equipment repair or required player equipment is missing or improperly worn.
  • To dry or change the ball.
  • For unusual heat or humidity.
  • When a coach-referee conference results in the referee altering his ruling.
  • To administer a penalty.
  • For any unusual delay in getting the ball marked ready for play.
  • For a media timeout.
  • For the intermission between the first and second and the third and fourth periods.
  • Prior to the succeeding free kick following a try, successful field goal or safety.
  • A player or official is injured or apparently injured.
  • A helmet comes completely off a player during a down or the subsequent dead-ball action.
  • Following the stoppage of the play clock by the referee for any other reason.
    In all other cases, the 40-second play clock begins when the ball is declared dead by an official using an upraised arm. In those instances, the ball is considered ready for play when the ball has been placed on the ground by an official and the official steps away to position.

If there is an appreciable delay in spotting the ball and the play clock is down to 20 seconds, the referee should reset the play clock to 25 seconds by a few pumps of one arm with an upraised palm. When there is no visible play clock, the referee should approximate the interval and use his best judgment. The game clock will start by rule on a referee’s signal or the snap.

When a first down is gained and the play ends inbounds, the clock stops to award the new series but the 40-second play clock starts when the ball becomes dead (it is not an administrative stoppage). Although the ball normally can be snapped as soon as it is spotted, in that special case, it cannot be snapped until the game clock is restarted. The umpire may stand over the ball to prevent a snap until the referee signals the game clock to start.

If the clock operator does not respond, the referee may blow his whistle to get the clock operator’s attention. Such a whistle does not reset the play clock. If the clock operator still doesn’t respond, the referee will signal timeout and reset the play clock to 25 seconds.

On a fourth-down play that results in a change of possession, the clock is stopped to award team B a first down; the game clock will stop to allow teams to substitute players. The referee will then blow his whistle and signal ready-for-play for a 25-second play clock.
The play clock is turned off whenever the ready-for-play is whistled with less than 25 seconds remaining in any quarter and the game clock is running.

Play 1: A1 throws an incomplete pass. Ruling 1: A 40-second play clock is started immediately when the ball is declared dead and the game clock stops. The game clock will start on the snap and the referee does not give a ready signal.

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Play 2: A1 runs out of bounds (a) short of, or (b) beyond the line-to-gain. Ruling 2: In both cases, a 40-second play clock is started immediately when the ball is declared dead and the game clock stops. The game clock will start on the snap and the referee does not give a ready signal. In (b), the referee signals a first down and signals the game clock to start when the ball is spotted.

Play 3: A1 runs for a one-yard gain and is tackled inbounds (a) short of, or (b) beyond the line-to-gain. Ruling 3: In either case, a 40-second play clock is started immediately when the ball is declared dead. In (a), the game clock continues to run. The referee does not give a ready signal or any other clock signal. In (b), the game clock stops on the covering official’s signal. The referee signals first down, the ball is spotted and the referee then signals to start the game clock. The referee does not wait for the chains to be set before starting the clock.

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As illustrated in Play 3, if a play ends beyond the line-to-gain without a foul, a 40-second play clock is used. The game clock is still stopped for the ball to be spotted, but that is not considered an administrative stoppage. No other timing rules are modified because of the play clock.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

This article is the copyright of ©Referee Enterprises, Inc., and may not be republished in whole or in part online, in print or in any capacity without expressed written permission from Referee. The article is made available for educational use by individuals.

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