BYU handicapped by following NFL rule?

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Abigail Keenan
BYU defensive back Chris Wilcox prepares for the snap against Northern Illinois University on Oct. 27. Wilcox said BYU tries to take its hands off receivers after five yards. (Abigail Keenan)

The NFL and NCAA rulebooks have a key difference when it comes to defensive contact with receivers, and the Cougar defense appears to be following NFL rule.

BYU has allowed fewer than 30 points in six of its first eight games this season. In comparison, the average point total for the top-50 NCAA schools is 38.

BYU has, however, struggled this season when it comes to pass coverage. The Cougars are currently ranked 39th in the nation when it comes to passing yards allowed per game, giving the opposing offense an average of 204.3 yards through the air when they matchup against BYU. This is 20.8 yards above the national average of 183.5 set by the top-50 football programs in the country.

Only two of the eight teams the Cougars have faced this year currently find themselves ranked within the top 50 in average passing yards per game: Hawaii, ranked 14th; and Washington, ranked 44th. During those two games, the Cougars allowed an average of 235.5 yards through the air, 52 yards more than the national average among the top-50 NCAA football programs.

The NFL and NCAA differentiate when it comes to defensive pass interference and what a team’s defense can do against opposing offenses. Section 4 Article 2 of the NFL rulebook, known as the chuck rule, explains that contact within five yards of the line of scrimmage is legal for NFL defenders.

“Within the area five yards beyond the line of scrimmage, a defensive player may chuck an eligible receiver in front of him. The defender is allowed to maintain continuous and unbroken contact within the five-yard zone,” the NFL rulebook states.

In comparison, the chuck rule does not exist in the NCAA. Defending players can make legal contact with the opposing receiver until the ball is released from the passer’s hand. The NCAA rulebook, under Section 3 Article 8 Paragraph C, explains: “Defensive pass interference occurs only after a legal forward pass is thrown.”

The difference here, again, is the amount of contact that can be applied to the opposing receiver. The NFL ruling aligns with the notion of getting the ball in the receiver’s hand. In contrast, the NCAA’s ruling makes it easier for the defense as it allows more contact to be made against the receiver. This adds a level of difficulty when receivers attempt to create separation between themselves and the defensive players.

BYU defensive back Chris Wilcox said players try to take their hands off the receivers after five yards, thus abiding by the NFL chuck rule as opposed to the NCAA ruling.

“After five yards, we try not to get hands-on,” Wilcox said. “In games, refs still call it. A lot of the time they kind of favor the receiver. We try to make it a habit right now. After five yards don’t get hands-on, don’t panic. Just stay calm and play the ball.”

Bill LeMonnier, a former college referee and current ESPN NCAA rules analyst, further explains this ruling on usafootball.com.

“It’s perfectly legal for a defender to bump or push an eligible receiver downfield until the ball is thrown,” LeMonnier says. “Until the ball is in the air, a downfield receiver is considered a potential blocker. Only in the NFL is there a five-yard contact zone where defenders have to be hands off after that point.”

In addition, Alex Kirshner, a college football writer for SBNation, adds more clarity to the ruling.

“In college, the five-yard window doesn’t exist,” Kirshner wrote. “Defenders can’t initiate contact with receivers while the ball’s in the air, but they can joust with them all the way down the field until the QB throws. DBs get to beat up on receivers a lot longer in college games.”

This directly correlates to why the Cougars, at times, have struggled to defend the pass this season. The Cougars were called for five defensive pass interferences through their first three games. In response to this, Malik Moore, a freshman safety on the team, said the team practiced covering receivers without using their hands.

“(We) cleaned up our act. A couple of practices we were practicing with tennis balls, so we weren’t grabbing — we could only use our feet,” Moore said. “We are taught to jam with our feet and go from there. Be clean with everything.”

Sitting at 4-4, the Cougars must win two of their remaining four games in order to ensure a bowl game at the end of this season. BYU now hits the road with sights set on a key matchup against Boise State on Nov. 3.

If the Cougars continue their pattern of minimal contact against opposing receivers, expect it to be exploited during this match-up. The Broncos’ offense currently finds itself ranked eighth in the nation in passing yards with an average of 332 yards through the air per game, 127.7 more than the BYU defense has allowed per game this season.

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