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CFB Explainer: Fumblin'

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From a reader: There are a lot of rules about when a fumble can/can't advance the ball, when a fumble out of the end zone results in a turnover (or a score), when a fumble out of bounds seems to negate the fumble itself. ... can you put together a compendium to help us follow the bouncing ball?

All rules re: fumbling come from Rule 7, Section 2 of the 2007 NCAA Rule Book.

Ballcarriers have never been allowed to intentionally fumble a ball forward. For most of the game's history, "intention" was left to official judgment. The play that changed the rule was the famous "Holy Roller" in 1978:

The result was a change in pro and college rules that forbid any advancement of fumbles on fourth down by the offense, regardless of intention. On fourth down, fumbles go back to the spot. This is the fundamental NCAA rule:

In short, on first, second and third downs, a fumble is still in play for advancement by any player on either team, as long as it's clear the ballcarrier didn't intentionally throw or bat the ball forward, like so:

The USF touchdown on that play was called back on replay because of illegal advancement; the YouTube poster on the clip (a USF fan, no doubt) labels it "a bullcrap call," and he's completely wrong. Had it been an "innocent" fumble, though, or had the ball gone backwards, the recovery and score would have been legal (this was the original call on the field).

Enforcement can be spotty. I remember a play during Southern Miss' game with Illinois in 2002, when the Illini knocked the ball loose on a sack around midfield. Thinking it was an incomplete pass, a frustrated Illinois lineman literally kicked the ball about 30 yards toward the USM end zone, where it was eventually recovered by one of his teammates and run in for a touchdown. The rules don't address it specifically, but there's no way an intentional kick is a legal advancement of a loose ball. If Southern Miss hadn't recovered to win, I'd still be livid. But there was no replay in 2002.

A fumble that crosses the goalline and rolls out of bounds before it's recovered, of course, is a touchback or safety, depending on the end zone.

There is also something the rulebook refers to in Rule 7, Section 1 as a "Planned Loose Ball," known in popular parlance as a "Fumblerooski," which has not been seen in college football in ages (this is not a fumblerooski) because of this addition to the prohibitions:

Planned Loose Ball
ARTICLE 7. A Team A player may not advance a planned loose ball in the vicinity of the snapper.

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Offensive linemen are also prohibited from receiving a "hand-to-hand snap." So if you imagine your fifth-year, walk-on guard rumbling downfield with the ball, he has to be in the shotgun.

The most confusing rule is probably on muffed kick and punt returns recovered by the kicking/punting team, explained thusly as part of Rule 5:

ARTICLE 6. a. If a free kick is caught or recovered by a player of the receiving team, the ball continues in play. ... If caught or recovered by a player of the kicking team, the ball becomes dead.
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So kicking/punting teams can recover a loose ball, but cannot advance it. The offense takes over at the spot of recovery.

Fortunately, the NCAA has nothing like a "Tuck Rule," so this travesty...

...could never be justified in college.

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If you have any kind of question for CFB Explainer, send it along to sundaymorningqb-at-yah00, etc. Don't be afraid to get complicated.