Rule of thumb: It helps if you know football rules


Football, to hear the coaches tell it, is complicated stuff, somewhere on the level of brain surgery, which is why we need Dr. John Madden and others trained in the secret rites to explain the game to the uninitiated, meaning us.

In which case, Joe Krivak, a longtime football coach after all, someone who has studied more film than Siskel and Ebert combined, must be as embarrassed as any man who ever strapped on a clipboard and whistle.

It was Krivak, the Maryland coach, who helped give away a game yesterday before tens of thousands of empty seats at Memorial Stadium. You could look it up. Krivak sure wished he had.

In perhaps the key play of a one-point loss to Clemson, Krivak decided to take a penalty that players in the Maryland huddle were urging him to decline. We can argue for days whether it was a good call or a bad call. But no one can deny it was a dumb call. Not even Krivak.

"It was just a mistake you make," he said.

Well, not really.

A mistake you make is getting caught cheating on your taxes. Or invading the wrong country, which is a really big mistake you might sometimes make. But Krivak's blunder was unthinkable: He didn't know the rule.

What this means, aside from the fact that he'll never be a TV analyst, is that Krivak, though he deserves points for honesty, blew it.

Here's what happened: With just under 10 minutes to play and Maryland leading, 17-12, Clemson faced a third down on its 40, nearly two yards short of a first down. Quarterback DeChane Cameron looked downfield and threw the ball well over his receiver's head, which would have set up a fourth down. But an official threw a penalty flag, ruling an ineligible Clemson receiver had strayed downfield.

In the defensive huddle, Scott Whittier, Maryland team captain, signaled that the Terps would decline the penalty. On the sidelines, Krivak frantically overruled him.

"I thought [the penalty] was a loss of down," Krivak said. "That would be fourth down, with about a yard and a half to go. They had gone before on fourth down, and I thought third and 6 1/2 was a lot tougher than fourth and a yard-and-a-half."

Once upon a time, an ineligible receiver meant a loss of down. No longer. The rule changed, but Krivak, a changed coach, a wide-open coach who will now try almost anything including end runs and shovel passes, didn't keep up.

Later, Krivak would say he would have made the same call regardless of the rule, meaning that even honest Joe is only so honest. Why would Clemson have gone for a fourth down in its own territory with nearly 10 minutes left in the game? If Clemson fails to convert, Maryland takes over one first down away from field-goal range, and a field goal would have given Maryland an eight-point lead.

When asked about it, Clemson coach Ken Hatfield, who would have had to sneak into town if his team had lost to Maryland, allowed as how he didn't know what he would have done.

"I didn't have to make the decision," Hatfield said.

No, instead it was third down again, and this time the quarterback completed a 37-yard pass. Five plays later, Clemson had a go-ahead touchdown, and Maryland a defeat that was fairly difficult to swallow.

The strange thing was that even if Krivak had been too busy studying film to study the rulebook, he still should have known better. All he had to do was pay attention. In the second quarter yesterday, Maryland was also called for an ineligible receiver on third down. Clemson took the penalty because the pass had been completed. It was, of course, still third down. On the next play, Maryland got the first down anyway as part of a drive that would result in a touchdown.

No one is hurt more by this defeat than Krivak himself, a man

fighting for his job. Maryland was a surprising 2-0 entering this game with Clemson, an opponent suddenly vulnerable with a new coach and coming off its first-ever loss to Virginia. For much of the game, Maryland's defense dominated. But there were mistakes made on offense, including a center snap that would go for a safety. Quarterback Scott Zolak was intercepted three times. The fourth-quarter magic of the first two games stayed in the bottle.

A win would have put Maryland in the top 25 and made it easier to accept a schedule that still includes Michigan, Penn State and Virginia. Now, it all seems somehow uphill. Of course, you don't pin a loss on any one play. If you did, you could put it on the bad center snap. And even after Krivak's call, the Maryland defense, which played so well, still could have stepped up and made another stop.

To Krivak's credit -- and to the complete surprise of anyone who has spent time studying the habits of football coaches -- he admitted his mistake, saying: "Maybe it was a bad decision on fourth down. If it was, that was my responsibility, and it's on me."

It was a bad decision, and, yes, it is on him. After all this time, Maryland still doesn't know the rules.

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