What is a penalty in football?

As with the rest of life, our actions are guided by a lot of rules. In real life, most of these rules are not written down. Things like, you are invited to someone’s house, you don’t come empty handed. However, in football, all the rules are written down. If you break a rule, then your team is penalized. Here is a list of most of the penalties in college football and the repurcussions of breaking those rules.
penalty in football illegal use of hands

What are the most common 7 penalties in college football?

Not all penalties are created equal. You can watch 50 games in a season and not have all the rules called. However, you would be hard pressed to watch a single game and not hear these 7 penalties called. Learn these 7 and you’ll know more about football than most people!!

  1. Offsides  (10 yards) – When any part of a player’s body is beyond the line of scrimmage when the ball is put into play. This is almost 100% on the defense because if the offense commits the foul, they usually get charged with something different (e.g. illegal procedure, illegal motion, lining up in the neutral zone). The cool thing about this is when it is committed by the defense, the flag is thrown but the play is not stopped. This results in the offense getting a ‘free’ chance to make more yards than the penalty will give them (10yds).  
  2. Holding (on the offense – 10yards; on the defense – 5 yards) – When a player uses his hands to hold onto or grab an opponent who does not have the ball (of course you can grab just about anything to tackle someone). You mostly see this on the offensive line trying to protect their quarterback.
  3. Delay of game (5 yards) – When the offense does not snap the ball before the play clock runs out. Notice, we did not say game clock. When it runs out, the quarter is over. This is to try and encourage a rate of play that keeps the audience interested. Of course, TV timeouts ruin that concept!
  4. Illegal procedure (5 yards)  – this is somewhat of a generic term to handle multiple types of infractions but it is most often seen 1) When a team has less than 7 men on the line of scrimmage (also called illegal formation) or (2) when someone on the offensive line (other than the center) moves after they line up and are still (their set position). The latter of these is usually described as a false start.
  5. False Start  (5 yards)– So, to elaborate on what we said in illegal procedure, a false start is an offensive penalty. The offensive line must all stay still for a couple of seconds between the time they come to the line and the ball is snapped. If any of the guys that have to be still (the center, the QB and anyone who is legally ‘in motion’ don’t have to be still) are not still, then it is a false start.
  6. Pass Interference (15 yards in college) – This is tricky. It happens when either a defensive player interferes with an offensive players ability to catch a ball or an offensive player interferes with the defensive players path. But, you’ve most likely seen all sorts of ‘interference’ between the receivers and corner backs/safeties. Well, there are all sorts of things that are allowed and then there are all sorts of things that are not. If it looks like they are grabbing, pushing, putting their hands in the face, etc. of the other guy then it is probably not allowed. You just have to watch some games to get an idea of what they can and can’t do. The penalty in professional football is an automatic first down and is at the spot of the foul so it can be a lot more than 15 yards.
  7. Personal Foul (15 yards) – This is when someone just acts like a jerk. These are primarily called when the action could seriously injure another player and are often called  to protect the vulnerable players (quarterbacks, kickers, punters, receivers). They are also called when someone continues to play (or, just be a jerk) after the play is over. Hitting guys who are already down or getting into a fight will make this happen. There are some penalties that have a “oops, you didn’t mean to version” and the “damn, you are a jerk” version. One of these types of penalties is a face mask or running into/roughing the kicker. The ‘damn, you are a jerk version” results in a personal foul and more penalized yards.

Definitions of Football Penalties

Block in Back –  Contact against an opponent that is not the ball carrier occurring when the force of the initial contact is from behind but above the waist.

Chop Block – When a player hits an opponent below the waste who  is already being blocked by someone else.

Clipping – When someone contacts a non-ball carrying opponent from behind or below the waist.

Delay of Game – When the offense does not snap the ball before the play clock expires.

Encroachment – When a player goes past the line of scrimmage and hits someone before the center snaps the ball (he went a bit further than just offsides).

Face Mask – When a player grabs an another players face mask. (This isn’t a good one..they know better)!

False Start – see above.

Hands to the Face – Hitting or pushing an opposing player in the face.

Holding – see above.

Horse Collar – Tackling a player by grabbing his jersey/shoulder pads around his neck. 

Illegal Forward Pass – Throwing a pass when the passer has gone over the line of scrimmage.

Illegal Formation –  When there are not enough players at the line of scrimmage. The offense always has to have 7.

Illegal Use of the Hands – Mostly occurs when a defensive back bumps a receiver after the first 5 yards or when an offensive lineman puts his hands up in the facemask of a rushing defender.

Illegal Shift –  When a player illegally changes positions or directions.

Ineligible Receiver Downfield – When an offensive lineman is too far advanced past the line of scrimmage when the quarterback throws a pass.

Intentional Grounding – When the quarterback throws the ball away instead of toward and an intended receiver in specific situations. A quarterback can do this when ‘spiking’ the ball or if he runs towards the outside (outside of the tackle box). 

Pass Interference – see above.

Personal Foul – see above. (This will get them more than a pat on the butt from their coach)!!

Offsides – see above.

Roughing or Running into the Kicker – Making contact with the kicker after he has kicked the ball. Running into the kicker is just 5 yards and is looked at as an accident. Roughing the kicker is a personal foul and a first down and is looked at as you meant to do it.

Roughing the Passer – Tackling the person who passed the ball AFTER the ball has been thrown. 

Safety – This is also a way to score. It happens when (1) the defense tackles the offensive ball carrier in their own end zone or (2) the offense loses control of the ball in their own end zone and it goes out of bounds. This results in 2 points for the defense and the offensive team must perform a free kick to the opposing team.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct – A penalty that does not involve any contact. This could be abusive language, taunting, coaching outside of the allowed area, or really bad dance moves. 

More Football Terms:

General Football Terms

Football Positions Defined

Football Abbreviations

Football Sayings for Everyday Life

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