A flag for that? Inside 5 obscure rules of Illinois high school football

Ryan Mahan
State Journal-Register

High school football officials don’t have it easy. They never get credit for all the calls they make correctly, but they are quick to be booed when fans perceive the wrong call was made.  

Combine that with long drives, a shortage of officials and annual rules changes, and they deserve far more praise than they get.  

However, we depend on the game officials to know a lengthy rule book and to make judgment calls in the blink of an eye. An offensive lineman briefly moved moments before the snap? The yellow flag likely will fly.  

But what about some rules that are lesser known, less understood or just plain obscure? A couple of Springfield-area football officials helped us take a look.

What can the holder do?  

Pekin holder Scott Jordan watches the football sail through the uprights during a scrimmage this season. Football official Brad Stearns says what a holder can and cannot do are among his favorite obscure rules to know.

When offensive teams attempt an extra point or a field goal, one of the most important players is the holder. But how can he be a part of a trick play, or save a play which has gone wrong?  

Springfield’s Brad Stearns, who is the Central State Eight Conference’s assignor of officials for football, says this is one of his favorites to know.  

IHSA football playoffs 2021:Playoff pairings, schedule, game times

“There are things (the holder) can do if he does not cleanly receive the ball from the snapper,” said Stearns, who is still a licensed official at age 81 but hasn’t called a game in years. “If he’s on a knee, which most holders are, he must get off that knee if he wants to pull a trick play, toss the ball to the kicker or run the ball.  

“If he picks it up with knee on ground, the only thing he can do is put it on the tee. He cannot do anything else if he hasn’t made a clean catch. 

“If a holder can’t cleanly catch the snap, he can get up off his knee, retrieve the ball then go down to his knee and put it on tee. But if he tries to toss to kicker while knee is on the ground, it’s a dead ball.” 

Keeping time by hand 

A five-man officiating crew already has plenty to do on each play, but what if the electronic scoreboard malfunctions?  

According to The National Federation of State High School Associations 2021-22 rule book, the referee will keep the time and briefly stop the game clock when there are less than four minutes to play in a half to notify the on-field captains and the coaches.  

“There is no such thing as a two-minute warning in high school football,” Stearns said. “The only time warning that teams will get is if (the officials) have to keep clock time on the field because the scoreboard has gone out for whatever reason. Then, at the earliest possible time once four minutes reaches, then they are required to stop the clock and give each bench a four-minute warning. 

“This is not like a timeout. They just stop the clock momentarily to make sure the benches are aware there’s four minutes left."

After the teams are notified, the game clock will resume if it naturally would have been running.  

Keep the clock moving 

Chris Hart makes a call Saturday during a youth NFL Flag football game at Clarence Hicks Memorial Sports Park in Rockford. Hart is an IHSA official and is training young people to be future referees.

Matt Burkhart, originally of Chatham and a current Illinois high school licensed game official, said a penalty can be a coach’s best friend in more than one way of a close game late in a half. 

“Under two minutes left in each half, if there is an accepted penalty, the offended coach has the option to have the clock start on the snap if the clock was supposed to be started on the ready-for-play signal,” Burkhart said. 

Kickoff goes out of bounds 

Through strategy, a weird bounce or a bad kick, the a kickoff may travel out of bounds — which is a penalty. The receiving team can have the kicking team do it again, but from 5 yards back, or get the ball at the receiving team’s 35-yard line.  

However, the penalty more specifically calls for the ball to be awarded to the receiving team 25 yards from the line of scrimmage from the kick. In normal situations, 25 yards from the home team’s 40 is the receiving team’s 35. But penalties can alter that.  

“Let’s say they have to kick off because of a penalty from the 45,” Stearns said. “Then if it goes out of bounds, it would be at the 30-yard line.” 

Home sweet home:Who has the best Illinois high school football stadium? Here are our favorites

Which team takes the field first?  

Rochester and Springfield get warmed up prior to kickoff at Rocket Booster Stadium in Rochester this season. The order in which teams take the field before a game is actually in the rulebook.

Spectators at a game involving a pair of rivals may have seen two teams who refuse to take the field to start the game before the other one has. Usually, the home team runs out to the chorus of the band and through a paper sign made that week by the cheerleaders.  

It is customary for the visiting team to come out first, but if the teams are playing a game of chicken with each other, the referee can direct the home team to take the field first.

Football feuds:Which Illinois high school rivalry is best? Here are our favorites

But what if the pre-game clock hits zero and a team still hasn’t taken the field? It’s not a 5-yard delay of game violation, but Stearns said the offending head coach should be subjected to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. 

“I have seen crews sometimes call a delay of game, but that’s not actually in the rules,” Stearns said.  

Contact Ryan Mahan: 857-246-9756, ryan.mahan@sj-r.com, Twitter.com/RyanMahanSJR.