October 17, 2011

Higgins: The most intense time of the year

Tom Higgins

With the playoffs rapidly approaching, and teams jostling for positions, October has proven to be the most intense time of the year for CFL fans. That being said, I want to look at three really interesting plays from recent games that produced a unique call, an observant one and a very close one, respectively.

THE DRIBBLED BALL: In the very exciting Calgary-B.C. game earlier this month, the Stamps fumbled the football, and Lions linebacker James Yurichuk kicked the loose ball several yards downfield before recovering it. That’s an unusual play, but a perfectly legal one.

We call this a “dribbled ball”, and it stems from our unique Canadian game’s rugby roots. Page 38 of our rule book states: “A dribbled ball occurs when the ball is kicked while not in possession or control of a player, i.e. a loose ball following a fumble, a blocked kick, a kickoff or a kick from scrimmage. Such a dribbled ball may be touched by the kicker or an onside player without penalty.”

In other words, that ball could legally be recovered by Yurichuk or any Lion who was behind him at the moment the ball was kicked. Perhaps the fact that Yurichuk is a Canadian out of Bishop’s University might account for his apparent knowledge of our rules.

However, if Yurichuk had kicked the ball out of bounds, the Lions would have forfeited possession to the Stamps. (If the ball had accidently struck Yurichuk’s leg or foot and then traveled out of bounds, it would not have been considered a kicked ball, and he would have been the last to touch it; the Lions would have been awarded possession.)

So here’s a pop history quiz that might appeal to our fans of “a certain age.” Can you name a play like this one that ended disastrously for the Toronto Argonauts in a Grey Cup game, but was overshadowed by an equally disastrous play? The answer is at the bottom of this column.

THE NUMBERS GAME: In that same Calgary-B.C. game on Thanksgiving weekend, the Stamps lined up to attempt a fake field goal, with kicker Rene Parades completing a pass for what appeared to be a first down.

Sometimes, these special teams trick plays break down because the kicking team has “no end” – which earns them an illegal procedure penalty. (The rule book says seven offensive players must line up on the line of scrimmage – five linemen and two eligible receivers.) Calgary had seven men on the line, but one of their ends was wearing an ineligible number.

Eligible numbers are 0 to 49, or 70 to 00. The play was called back and the Stamps kicked a successful field goal. Kudos to the official who went the extra yard, so to speak, by not only counting the players on the line, but checking the ends’ numbers as well.

A CLOSE CALL: In the Hamilton-Winnipeg game on Oct.  7, there was a touchdown pass to Bombers receiver Greg Carr that sparked some controversy. On the play, another Winnipeg receiver appeared to block a Tiger-Cat defensive back when the ball was in the air, freeing Carr to catch the ball and setting up his run to the end zone.

The television commentators speculated that Winnipeg may have gotten away with an illegal “pick play.” We reviewed this play very carefully and saw that Carr caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage.

When the ball is passed to a receiver behind the line of scrimmage, his teammates are allowed to block downfield, even when the ball is in the air. When a passed ball is completed behind the line of scrimmage, it’s considered a screen pass. And on a screen pass, the offensive team can block anyone from the defensive team from the moment the ball is snapped.

If you watch the replay of Carr’s catch carefully, you might see the sideline official put his arm up as soon as the pass was completed, to indicate that the ball was caught behind the line of scrimmage.  Carr wasn’t behind the line of scrimmage by much; in fact it was less than a yard. So it was a close call, but a very good one.

History Quiz Answer: In the 1971 Grey Cup, the Calgary Stampeders were looking to win their first Grey Cup in 23 years, and the Toronto Argonauts were determined to end a 19-year drought. Late in the fourth quarter and with the Argos down 14-11, Dick Thornton intercepted a Calgary pass and returned the ball 54 yards to the Stamps’ 11-yard line. But moments later, running back Leon McQuay slipped on the wet Empire Stadium turf, losing the football.

The Stamps recovered with 1:53 remaining. A lot of Argo fans remember that play ruefully. but not many folks remember that the Stamps went two-and-out on their next possession, giving the Argos another chance. But Argo Harry Abofs kicked the punted ball out of bounds, returning possession to Calgary, who then ran out the clock for the win. It was a rare play and a tough one. It would be another 12 years before the Argos would finally end their drought, winning the Cup in dramatic style back in Vancouver, in 1983.