Going the Rounds: Mercy, mercy: running clock has pros and cons

Tired of seeing such college football scores as Oklahoma State 84, Savannah State 0, or Oregon 63, Tennessee Tech 14?

One remedy would be for some type of NCAA sanction that prevents such obvious mismatches. Another would be for the colleges to borrow a rule from the high school ranks.

A running-clock mercy rule has been utilized in Washington prep football for the past three years. When one team builds at least a 40-point lead by halftime or anytime in the second half, the game clock runs more or less continuously for the remainder of the contest.

Stoppages are permitted only after scoring plays, injuries or charged timeouts. The clock also stops momentarily on changes of possession, but is restarted when officials mark the ball ready for play.

Eight-man football once had a 45-point mercy rule, in which the game was halted when the margin reached 45 or more. That rule was eliminated this year to bring the 1B classification schools into compliance with 11-man regulations.

The rule is designed to minimize the impact of lopsided victories. While coaches agree the goal is laudable, they differ on the effectiveness of this regulation.

“Really, I don’t like the rule,” said South Bend coach Tom Sanchez, whose team has been on both sides of the mercy rule in the past two-plus seasons. “I know the intent is to try to alleviate the blowout. To me, that’s something that a responsible adult who is coaching should be able to control. A lot of times when the score is out of hand, it’s a great opportunity to play your younger kids on a Friday night.”

The key words in Sanchez’s statement might be “responsible adult.” Montesano coach Terry Jensen, whose team won eight games last year in which the mercy rule was invoked, said that the definition of coaching responsibility varies too much to be universally accepted.

“It has been demonstrated too many times that some coaches are less compassionate than others, so I’m not sure leaving it to the coaches is a great idea,” he said.

Jensen said he is “OK with most of the rule,” but dislikes the provision in which the clock remains running even if the trailing team reduces the margin to less than 40. In 8-man ball in particular, rallies from a 40-point deficit have been known to happen.

“Although the chances of making a comeback are slim, they are non-existent under the current rule,” Jensen observed.

At times, the mercy rule may also be merciful for the spectators.

Because of frequent clock stoppages related to higher scores and wide-open offenses, high school games are taking much longer to play than even a decade ago.

A penalty-filled Wishkah-Taholah game on Sept. 8 that was too close for the mercy rule to apply lasted 3 1/2 hours. The Hoquiam-Aberdeen game on the same night would have approached the 3-hour mark had not the running clock been invoked midway through the third quarter.

The game clock in the latter contest was virtually inert during a passage midway through the first half that included four touchdowns, a safety, seven penalties, seven first downs and a couple of timeouts. All the above occurred in about a five-minute span of game time that probably took close to 20 minutes to complete.

“It was awful,” an Aberdeen fan said of the pace of play.

I’ve long believed that the modification or elimination of a couple of high school/college timing rules would help matters considerably. Stopping the clock to move the chains following first downs is totally unnecessary. Clock stoppages when a player runs out of bounds are only slightly more legit.

In the latter instance, I’d support a rule similar to the National Football League’s in which clock stoppages on out-of-bounds plays would be confined to the last few minutes of each half.

Jensen believes that officials can do a better job of moving the game along.

“I hope I don’t get in trouble here, but well-officiated games usually means shorter games,” the Montesano coach said. “Officials can control the pace of the game more than the teams. The more efficient they are, the faster the game moves.

“They have too many conferences about penalties and talking to captains. Most of the calls are no-brainers and should just be marked off, there doesn’t have to be discussions on the pros and cons of each call,” Jensen added. “The NFL does a good job of just marking the obvious penalties and generally there isn’t too much discussion unless something unusual happens.”

In some respects, a running clock would be a better fit for college football than the high school variety. With 15-minute quarters, college games are longer to begin with. Attempting to position their teams for higher rankings and better postseason bowl bids, college coaches are less inclined to call off the horses in obvious blowouts.

“The thing that makes it different is the polls,” Sanchez said. “(Coaches) not only have to win, but have to win by a lot.”

There is zero chance, however, that college rulesmakers would adopt any type of mercy rule. Television executives would balk at any regulation that could potentially reduce the number of commercials. College coaches have also demonstrated a resistance to change.

Concerned about the length of college games, some rulesmakers suggested several years ago that the automatic clock stoppages after each first down be eliminated.

A majority of coaches embraced this proposal about as enthusiastically as Oregon coach Chip Kelly would have endorsed a suggestion that Nike CEO Phil Knight redistribute his financial contributions from the Ducks to the Oregon State or Washington football programs. The proposed rule change went nowhere.

Although scoring may be at a peak, there’s nothing new about football blowouts.

In researching the history of long-dormant Aberdeen-Montesano football rivalry, prep historian Ralph Lovelace uncovered a 106-0 Bobcat victory in 1914 and a 107-0 Aberdeen triumph three years later. Aberdeen Hall of Famer Irwin Pinckney remained in the 1914 contest long enough to score 12 touchdowns.

The quality of mercy must have been different in those days.