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NCAA Rules 101 - Intentional Grounding

A closer look at what is and isn't intentional grounding, plus how spiking the ball, or clocking, is exempted from the penalty

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Intentional grounding is one of the more misunderstood rules in football today. From the idea of what we think constitutes the penalty to what we see actually get called on the field, it has become very unclear to the fans when we can expect to see it. Additionally, the rules vary from the NFL to the NCAA, and there is the tactic of spiking the ball (clocking) to preserve time, which seems to qualify as intentional grounding. Some of the writers have talked amongst ourselves about this, and this week I spoke with Ryan on the podcast about it, and decided to delve deeper into what the rules really state.

Popular Opinion

It seems to be relatively common knowledge that there are 3 conditions that must be met for there to be intentional grounding of an incompleted pass

  1. The quarterback must be in the pocket, between the tackles
  2. The ball must not pass the line of scrimmage
  3. There must not be an eligible receiver in the area of the pass

However, the actual rules differ slightly

NCAA Rules

In the Official 2015 Rules and Interpretations put out by the NCAA, Rule 7 deals with the actual snapping and passing of the ball. Section 3, Article 2 deals with illegal forward passes. It says......

I. Quarterback who is not outside the tackle box, and is attempting to save yardage, intentionally throws a desperation forward pass that falls incomplete where there is no eligible receiver. Ruling: Intentional Grounding. Penalty: Loss of down at the spot of the foul. The clock starts at the snap.

Notice that there is no mention of the ball going past the line of scrimmage. Intentional grounding can theoretically be called if the QB launches the ball deep down the field and there are no eligible receivers in the area.

II. Late in either half with more than a minute remaining, the quarterback is unable to locate an open receiver. To conserve time, he throws a forward pass that is incomplete where there is no eligible receiver. Ruling: Illegal forward pass, intentional grounding. Penalty: Loss of down at the spot of the foul. The clock starts at the ready for play signal.

Ok, now things are making less sense. You've heard of coverage sacks, this is coverage intentional grounding. There is no mention of being in the pocket, or where the ball lands, only about the proximity of an eligible receiver and the point of time in the game.

The following conditions all result in an intentional grounding call.

III. On third down near the end of either half, if the potential field goal holder muffs the snap and they or the potential field goal kicker recover the ball only to throw it forward into the ground.

IV. The ball is snapped over the head of the quarterback, who is in the shotgun formation. The quarterback recovers the ball and immediately throws it forward into the ground.

IX. Third and 5 at your own 40. The quarterback drops back in the pocket to pass. Under a heavy rush he throws the ball backwards to a running back who carries the ball outside the tackle box. About to be tackled, and at the 35 yard line, he throws a forward pass that crosses the neutral zone and lands in an area 20 yards from the nearest receiver.

The following conditions do NOT result in an intentional grounding call.

V. On third down near the end of the half the quarterback muffs the snap. He or the running back immediately catch the ball and throw it forward into the ground.

VI. On third down near the end of the half, the player who is 7 yards behind the snapper catches the ball and immediately throws it forward into the ground

VIII. The quarterback sprints towards the sideline and is outside the tackle box. He throws a forward pass that is batted down by a defensive lineman and lands in the neutral zone.

X. The quarterback is in shotgun formation. He muffs the backwards pass from the snapper and an offensive lineman picks up the ball. Under a heavy rush he gets outside the tackle box and throws the ball incomplete past the line of scrimmage.

And on one condition the play can be an illegal formation, but not be considered intentional grounding.

VII. With seconds remaining in the half and the ball ready for play, the offense quickly lines up and the ball is snapped to the quarterback. At the time of the snap the formation was illegal. The quarterback immediately throws the ball forward into the ground, with the clock showing two seconds left.

The two seconds bit at the end of condition VII seems a bit strange to be included but that is because of a relatively new, and mostly unknown rule about the time needed to spike the ball in Rule 3 Section 2 Article 5

I. Late in a quarter, the offense, who has run out of timeouts, makes a first down with 3 seconds left on the clock. The offense intends to spike the ball and run an additional play. The ball is snapped and the quarterback spikes the ball. The clock now reads 0:00. The game is over

Because of this rule and its interpretation, if there are less than 3 seconds left on the clock, the team cannot spike the ball. If the clock shows only 1 or 2 seconds the offense can only run one play. Now the reason for a lot of this confusion was a play that OSU had near the end of the 1st half and spiked the ball on 1st down with 11 seconds left on the clock. The strange thing is they spiked the ball while in shotgun formation, something that isn't usually seen. The play can be seen here. (If you are reading this on a mobile device, go to the 1:16:31 mark to see the play)

Now that we have seen the rules about intentional grounding, should that play have been called as such? And what makes clocking the ball allowed under the intentional grounding rules? Condition I mentions an eligible receiver, and there was a back near Rudolph when he spiked the ball. It wasn't third down so none of those conditions apply in this situation. The one thing that is the most strange is the formation OSU is in, shotgun. In the NCAA rulebook nothing mentions if the quarterback has to be under center to spike the ball legally.

NFL Rules

However, the NFL is a different beast altogether. While it would be nice if the rules were the same on Saturday afternoon as they are on Sunday, this is not the case. Intentional Grounding is covered in Rule 8 Section 2 of the NFL rulebook.

Definition - It is a foul for intentional grounding if a passer, facing an imminent loss of yardage because of pressure from the defense, throws a forward pass without a realistic chance of completion. A realistic chance of completion is defined as a pass that lands in the direction and vicinity of an originally eligible receiver.

Item 1 - Intentional grounding will not be called when a passer, who is outside, or has been outside, the tackle position throws a forward pass that lands at or beyond the line of scrimmage, even if no offensive player(s) have a realistic chance to catch the ball (including when the ball lands out of bounds over the sideline or endline). If the ball crosses the line of scrimmage (extended) beyond the sideline, there is no intentional grounding. If a loose ball leaves the area bordered by the tackles, this area no longer exists; if the ball is recovered, all intentional grounding rules apply as if the passer is outside this area.

Item 2 - Intentional grounding should not be called if:

  1. the passer initiates his passing motion toward an eligible receiver and then is significantly affected by physical contact from a defensive player that causes the pass to land in an area that is not in the direction and vicinity of an eligible receiver; or
  2. the passer is out of the pocket, and his passing motion is significantly affected by physical contact from a defensive player that causes the ball to land short of the line of scrimmage.

Item 3 - A player under center is permitted to stop the game clock legally to save time if, immediately upon receiving the snap, he begins a continuous throwing motion and throws the ball directly into the ground.

Item 4 - A passer, after delaying his passing action for strategic purposes, is prohibited from throwing the ball to the ground in front of him, even though he is under no pressure from defensive rusher(s).

Well the NFL definitely defines the rule a lot better than the NCAA does, as well as explaining why spiking the ball is allowed, and when it is allowed to spike the ball. The other difference is that in the NFL it results in a loss of down and either 10 yards from the previous spot or the spot of the foul. In college games, the biggest condition seems to be the presence of an eligible receiver. If a team lined up with an empty backfield, and spiked the ball, it should result in an intentional grounding call.