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Tim Martinez: Be aware that high school football rules differ from college, NFL

By Tim Martinez, Columbian Assistant Sports Editor
Published: September 13, 2023, 6:05am

The rules for high school football are not the same as they are for college football or the NFL.

It’s a good reminder for fans. It’s one of the biggest mistakes they make when offering complaints about the officiating from the stands during a high school game.

But it’s not a mistake that fans alone can make.

At a game this season, I watched a team go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line. The team threw a pass into the end zone which was incomplete. However, the defense was flagged for pass interference.

The officials moved the ball to the 4-yard line. Then the team on offense ran the ball for a 1-yard gain and turned the ball over on downs.

It really looked like the coaches of the team on offense thought it was first-and-goal at the 4. It was not. It was fourth down.

Similarly, at another game when pass interference was called on the defense, the public address announcer said the penalty would result in an automatic first down.

It does not.

The only defensive penalty that results in an automatic first down in high school football is roughing – either to the passer, kicker, punter, snapper or holder.

Now, I believe pass interference should result in an automatic first down in high school football. But the rulebook says it does not, and it’s the one rule I think they should change.

And then I was at a game last Friday at McKenzie Stadium. Early in the game, Hockinson threw an interception.

In my notes, I noted first-and-10 at the 34 for Evergreen, then I looked at the scoreboard clock, as I like to take note of the time during a change of possession.

The clock read “14:00.”

I was momentarily confused, before walking up to the line judge and saying “They put 15 minutes on the stadium clock to start this game.”

Play was stopped, officials conferred, then they instructed the game clock to be changed to “11:00.”

In the NFL and college football, quarters are 15 minutes long. In high school, they are 12.

Then, in the second game Friday at McKenzie, Stadium High School was on the 1-yard line against Heritage, setting up to score. The quarterback got under center with two running backs lined up tightly behind him.

They snapped the ball and surged into the end zone. It’s a play we’ve seen time and time again in recent years, at all levels of play.

But on this play, the referee quickly threw a flag. I thought “They’re going to call ‘helping the runner.’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. It’s become like a forgotten rule.”

Turns out, it is a point of emphasis by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) this season.

The NFHS stated: “Rule changes have been made at higher levels of football allowing offensive teams to pile in behind and directly push the runner. Because of these changes, we are now seeing similar plays at the high school level. As guardians of the game, it is imperative that all stakeholders work together to remove ‘helping the runner’ from our high school game.”

According to high school rules, pushing the pile is legal, but pushing the ballcarrier by direct contact is not, as well as pulling or lifting the runner. And the NFHS has instructed officials to enforce that rule this season.

“The NFHS Football Rules Committee’s main focus is risk minimization, followed closely by assurance of a balance between offensive and defensive rules,” the NFHS stated.

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So the next time you’re at a high school football game and you see an officials call that you don’t agree with, make sure it’s not just a rule you don’t agree with or understand.

Tim Martinez is the assistant sports editor/prep coordinator for The Columbian. He can be reached at tim.martinez@columbian.com, 360-735-4538 or follow the handle @360TMart on Instagram and X (Twitter)