In College Football, Even the Nitpicky Rules Matter

Cecil HarrisCorrespondent IDecember 30, 2010

An excessive celebration penalty against Adrian Hilburn (82) cost Kansas State a chance to tie Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl.
An excessive celebration penalty against Adrian Hilburn (82) cost Kansas State a chance to tie Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl.Chris McGrath/Getty Images

There are still 11 days until college football’s national championship game between Oregon and Auburn in Glendale, Ariz.

Let’s hope head coaches Gene Chizik of Auburn and Chip Kelly of Oregon are reminding their players that not following every rule on the field could be the difference between becoming national champs and becoming, well, the Buffalo Bills of college football.

Even the nitpicky rules matter in college football, something we were reminded of during Thursday’s Pinstripe Bowl between Syracuse and Kansas State at Yankee Stadium.

Let’s hope Kelly and Chizik show their players the video of Kansas State wide receiver Adrian Hilburn catching a touchdown pass that cut Syracuse’s lead to 36-34 with 1:13 left after which Hilburn cost the Wildcats a legitimate chance to tie the score because of an “excessive celebration” penalty.

According to the rules, any action by a player that brings undue attention to himself is guilty of excessive celebration, resulting in a 15-yard penalty.

How did Hilburn break the rule?

He raised his right hand to his helmet and saluted the crowd in the back of the end zone.

So what, you say?

You’ve seen other players do much worse than Hilburn without being penalized, you say?

I agree with you.

The night before, in the Alamo Bowl, Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackman decided to run parallel to the goal line for several seconds just to call more attention to himself before he scored a touchdown.

Blackman was not penalized.

But he should have been.

Whether you like the excessive celebration rule or not, it exists and it’s supposed to be enforced.

If not for Hilburn’s act of self-aggrandizement, Kansas State would have attempted a two-point conversion from the three-yard line as usual. But the penalty pushed the ball back to the 18-yard line.

From the 18, a low-percentage pass by Kansas State into the end zone fell incomplete and Syracuse held on to win.

Never mind that Hilburn’s behavior in the Pinstripe Bowl was not nearly as self-absorbed as Blackman’s in the Alamo Bowl.

Never mind that the way zebra-shirted officials call college football games is wildly inconsistent.

What matters is the excessive celebration penalty has been on the books for years, yet players continue to violate the rule by diving into the end zone, or dancing, or pointing contemptuously at an opponent, or pointing vaingloriously to himself in nearly every college game.

Since coaches don’t know whether the crew officiating their game will be strict or lenient until play actually begins, the best thing to do is remind players not to do anything stupid on the field—something that could cost the game a national championship and force that player to wear a figurative pair of goat horns for the rest of his life.

Think about it. The only thing saving Hilburn from a lifetime of national ridicule is he committed his selfish act in the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl, a game most sports fans didn’t bother to watch.

But if an Auburn Tiger or an Oregon Duck who worships at the Shrine of Kanye West decides to behave like Hilburn on Jan. 10 and costs his team a chance to win or tie the national championship game, then he will deserve every bit of criticism that comes his way.

And so will the head coach who should have taught him better.