I was watching the Outback Bowl today when one team decided to punt from around its opponents 35 yard line. The coach decided to let the play clock expire to get a little extra room to kick after the penalty, and the commentators speculated that the coach on the defense might opt to decline the penalty, hoping to increase the likelihood of a punt into the endzone. The penalty was accepted.

Makes sense to me. But suppose a team takes a delay of game penalty and the defense declines the penalty. The play clock runs down again for another delay of game, which is again declined. Ad nauseum.

Is this even possible (forget likelihood)? If so, how would the referees get the game moving again?

  • 2
    According to "GeekRef" in this Reddit thread, the referees could potentially declare a forfeit if the offense refuses to snap the ball. (I have no idea if this is right or not, so this is a comment, not an answer).
    – Philip Kendall
    Jan 2, 2015 at 15:41
  • 3
    Since I didn't get a quick answer I decided to dig into the NCAA rulebook. Rule 10-1-1-b states that any penalty can be declined, dead ball or not. Rules 9-2-3-b and -c state that the referee may declare the game a forfeit if the offense either refuses to play within two minutes of being ordered to do so, or of the offense repeatedly commits fouls that can only be penalized by (at most) halving the distance to their own goal. So, the situation can arise, but if the referee doesn't like it he has the authority to end the game in forfeit.
    – user7789
    Jan 3, 2015 at 21:59
  • 4
    You should post that as an answer - Stack Exchange explicitly encourages self-answered questions.
    – Philip Kendall
    Jan 3, 2015 at 23:01

3 Answers 3


At every level of football there are (sportsmanship) forfeit rules in place for teams that try to create an infinite loop of events. Sometimes these things are done with the most malicious expectations. An example is a team is losing, so they have their offensive line jump and hit d-line. Over and over. Even if the defense accepts these penalties a referee can deem the situation unsportsmanlike and simply warn the offense. After three such times (if that) any crew I worked on would go over to the coach and warn them about their unsportsmanlike behavior and possible forfeit. If it happened on next play an ultimatum would be issued and then after that game would be forfeited.

I don't think this would ever happen at the major college or NFL level because coaches and teams may face harsh harsh penalties/suspensions. They have the same level of rules which generally allows referees to make the decisions upon discretion. This is a two-sided sword since a referee that ever made this decision would also be under as much scrutiny.

A real world example I have personally been involved with was a late game situation. There was 10 seconds on the clock and team had first and goal at the 1 with two timeouts. The defense stacked the line and jumped offsides 4 times in a row. Two of the times they barely jumped off, play ran, and during those plays 6 seconds came off the clock. On the third time I went and warned the defensive head coach that if his team kept jumping then I would award the offense the touchdown.

So on the 4th time we awarded offense a touchdown. This almost caused a riot. This was 15+ years ago and I was a young ref doing a big high school game. Today we would have gone the forfeit route but at the time awarding touchdown was the way to go.

Now offense goes up by 4 after XP try is good. We access 15 yard penalty against defensive team on the kickoff because we flagged the head coach and every assistant they had.

Offensive team muffs the kickoff (4 seconds left), damn them. The kids at this point haven't played a snap other than XP in 45 minutes. Returner breaks through and takes it to the house... but there was a holding flag so game over. I watched the tape and there was a holding on the play which was about 40 yards from the referee that threw it and on the other side of the field. I hate in any sport where referees determine winner and for the most part you should never remember the refs but I am thankful years later that the elder of the crew did the "right" thing.

Note: Rule 12, Section 3 would cover this in the NFL. In the NCAA Rules 9-2-3-b and -c and really the entire forward of the rulebook.

Some excerpts:

The rules committee reminds head coaches of their responsibility for the behavior of their players before and after, as well as during, the game. Players must be cautioned against pre-game unsportsmanlike conduct on the field that can lead to confrontation between the teams. Such action can lead to penalties enforced on the opening kickoff, possibly including disqualification of players. Repeated occurrence of such unsportsmanlike behavior by a team may result in punitive action by the conference against the head coach and his institution

Disqualified Players ARTICLE 6. a. Any player or identified squad member in uniform who commits two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls in the same game shall be disqualified. b. A player disqualified from the game must leave the playing enclosure under team supervision within a reasonable amount of time after his disqualification. He must remain out of view of the field of play under team supervision for the duration of the game

  • Could you give the specific reference in the NCAA rulebook which would allow "referees to make the decisions upon discretion"?
    – Philip Kendall
    Jan 13, 2015 at 11:29

Rule 14 Section 6 Article 4

"When a 40/25-second penalty occurs prior to the snap, the defensive team may decline a distance penalty, in which case the down is replayed from the previous spot."

Rule 4 Section 7 Note 1:

"Two successive delay penalties during the same down, is unsportsmanlike conduct [...]"

Rule 12 Section 3 Article 1

"There shall be no unsportsmanlike conduct. This applies to any act which is contrary to the generally understood principles of sportsmanship. Such acts specifically include, among others: [...] o. Two successive delay-of-game penalties during the same down. [...]

Penalty: For unsportsmanlike conduct (for (j) through (v)): Loss of 15 yards from: a)the succeeding spot if the ball is dead [...]"

Source: http://operations.nfl.com/the-rules/2015-nfl-rulebook

  • This is an NFL answer, not collegiate as the above requested; but I think it's a good answer, nonetheless. Might be better with a sentence or two around it though, not just rules quotes.
    – Joe
    Nov 24, 2015 at 15:41

Delay of game is a penalty when there is no action, before the play starts - like a false start. As such it is automatic and not subject to a decline by the defense. This is how the infinite cycle of delay is avoided.


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