Blowouts in high school football throughout California will come to an end faster this year than they have in the past.
In April, at a CIF State Federated Council meeting, a new, mandatory mercy rule for this season was enacted. If a team has a lead of at least 35 points entering the fourth quarter or takes a lead of 35 or more during the fourth quarter, a running clock has to be implemented for the remainder of the game, regardless of whether the losing team makes the game any closer the rest of the way.
Thus, the clock must run after first downs, changes of possession, incomplete passes, a ball carrier going out of bounds, touchbacks and penalties. Timeouts, however, will still be acknowledged, and the clock will also still stop after scoring plays. The rule will also be in effect for the playoffs.
As has been the standard for years, after one team takes a 35-point lead before the start of the fourth, schools can institute a running clock if both coaches have mutually agreed to do so. On a statewide basis, however, such mutual agreements very seldom take place, according to Ron Nocetti, the senior director for the CIF State Office.
Nocetti compared the new rule to one already in place for basketball that calls for a running clock if a team has a 40-point lead after three quarters. The basketball rule has received mostly positive feedback, he said.
The first instance of a San Luis Obispo County team playing a game under the new football rule was last week as Mission Prep opened its season with a 48-0 win at Avenal High in each team’s season opener.
The Royals, whose program has made massive strides over the past few years, had to schedule the game midway through August as a make-up date after their matchup with Coast Union was canceled. Avenal, meanwhile, was coming off an 0-10 season. In Friday’s matchup, Mission Prep scored all of its points in the first half.
In that game, Royals coach Chad Henry said the running clock kicked in late in the first half — a clock-management error — and stayed that way until the end of the game.
Henry, along with Nipomo coach Russ Edwards, said he didn’t like the rule in the sense that it will take valuable, hard-earned playing time away from backups.
“Anything you can do to get your players in is really important,” Henry said.
Henry said the rule does have value in that it “keeps scores in check,” but added, “When I was in high school, you could get beat 70-0 and nobody would blink. Nowadays it’s a big deal.
“To me, it brings up, ‘What is sportsmanship?’ Playing hard until the end of a game, or letting up and not playing hard to the end? Which is basically what they’re saying to do (with the new rule).”
Edwards said he hadn’t given the new rule much thought because he “hadn’t planned on being mercy-ruled,” but “even if I were on the losing end, I wouldn’t like it.”
Edwards said PAC 7 and Los Padres League coaches as a whole differ from some in other areas around the state who may have prompted the rule.
“If I’m losing by (35 points late in a game), my starters aren’t in the game anymore,” he said, “and their starters aren’t in the game, either.”
Edwards said a factor in the move may have been that some coaches at certain perennial powerhouses feel the need to run up scores in order to impress the state bowl game selection committee, similar to college teams feeling a need to post 70-plus points to end up in a BCS bowl.
Nocetti said the CIF State Office has stressed, however, that point spreads are not a factor in the selection process.
“Whether coaches feel that way or not is hard for us to determine,” Nocetti said. “We’ve made it very clear.”
Nocetti also said that to the contrary, teams could even be negatively affected in the selection process if they hadn’t displayed a commitment to the CIF’s “victory with honor” clause meant to foster sportsmanship.
California now plays five state bowl games, which pit Northern and Southern region schools against each other. However, with 43 total divisions spread throughout the state’s 10 sections (there are 13 alone in the Southern Section, in which all local teams play), not every divisional champion gets to play on. Last year, for instance, Lompoc won the Northwest Division title but was among the 33 divisional champions not selected for a bowl game.
“We don’t have coaches in our area who’re out to set national scoring records or really put it to another coach,” Edwards said.
“The majority of us in this area have great respect for one another, and when it becomes a three-, four-possession game in the fourth quarter, most coaches are backing off and call off the dogs quite a bit.”
Henry said he hopes the rule is eventually repealed.
“I think it should be left up to the coaches,” Henry said. “They know what’s best for each of their teams.”
Edwards had a similar laissez-faire viewpoint.
“I think as coaches we have an obligation to do that, anyway,” he said. “When we’re getting pounded, to put up the white flag and put our backups in, so the other coach can say, ‘He’s got his seconds in, let’s put ours in.’ We want to win games first and foremost, but it’s also about common sense and having respect for your opponent.”