Changing width of goalposts made many games a real kick

December 29, 1991|By Ivan Maisel | Ivan Maisel,Dallas Morning News

DALLAS ZHC UXB — |TC DALLAS -- In college football, the distance of four feet, 10 inches should inspire fear in no one. It is well short of two yards, a gap that invites coaches to gamble on fourth down.

Hoist that distance 10 feet in the air, however, and it transforms the game. Four feet, 10 inches, the amount by which the goalposts narrowed this season, produced the most noticeable change in the game in the last 10 years.

In reducing the width from 23-4 to 18-6, the NCAA Football Rules Committee intended to restore some balance between offense and defense. The committee succeeded, wildly so. Fans who couldn't distinguish a pass block from a roadblock seized upon the issue.

There have been many significant rules changes. None in recent memory have changed the outcomes of games -- and perhaps a national championship -- as decisively as this one.

In came the uprights. Down went the accuracy rate. Extra points, which had become as suspenseful as the tap-in putt, no longer were so automatic. The number of missed conversions doubled to 8 percent.

For any field goal longer than an extra point, the percentage of successful kicks dropped between 16 percent and 22 percent depending upon the distance. But the rule change had a major effect on long kicks.

The number of attempts beyond 40 yards plummeted. As NCAA director of statistics Jim Van Valkenburg wrote, "It seems safe to assume that only the better kickers were allowed to try the longer ones."

Statistics don't begin to paint as vivid a picture of the efficacy of the narrower goalposts as the following snapshots:

* Pittsburgh dominated Minnesota in every aspect of the game but won only 14-13 because Panthers kicker Scott Kaplan missed four field goals.

* Minnesota made only two of six extra points this season.

* Colorado salvaged a 19-19 tie with Nebraska -- and with the Cornhuskers for the Big Eight Conference championship -- first by returning a blocked conversion for two points, then by blocking a field goal as time expired.

* Trailing Notre Dame, 31-7, Tennessee blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown. It ignited a comeback that gave the Volunteers a 35-34 lead. Tennessee held onto the victory by blocking a second field goal as the game ended.

* Florida State overcame the early season woes of kicker Dan Mowrey when it defeated Brigham Young, Michigan and Syracuse. But the Seminoles' kicking woes caught up to them against Miami.

Florida State lost, 17-16, when a 34-yard field goal attempt by Gerry Thomas, Mowrey's replacement, drifted inches wide of the right upright. Last season, the kick would have been good. The Seminoles would have remained No. 1. They would have been more spirited in their approach to playing at Florida.

"It's amazing that it [the rule change] could cost you the national championship," Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said after the game. "I wasn't in favor of the narrower goalposts. Very few coaches were in favor of it. Most of us don't like change."

Change, however, had been the catalyst for the offensive explosion of the 1980s. In the decade the committee twice relaxed blocking rules to allow full extension of the arms. Passing yardage increased by more than 100 yards per game. In 1990, Division I-A teams averaged a record 24.4 points per game.

So the rulesmakers tried returning the goalposts to the width first adopted in 1876. To increase scoring, the goalposts had been widened in 1959. The number of field goals nearly doubled that season, from .18 to .34 per game.

By 1988, teams combined to kick 2.31 field goals per game, a seven-fold increase. The committee took away the two-inch kicking tee. Accuracy increased to a record 69.2 percent.

In October, shortly before he died of a heart attack, rulebook editor Dave Nelson of the University of Delaware said, "The committee didn't know what effect it would have. We were still in a state a shock that we took away the tee and [the accuracy of] field goals went up."

By itself, the absence of the tee did not stem the scoring. By itself, narrowing the goalposts may not accomplished a thing. Together, the two wreaked havoc on offensive game plans.

"The combination made a big change," Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bill Meyers said. "There were more kicks blocked. Teams were utilizing the center leap a lot more. It was so much easier to block kicks that way with the ball on the ground."

The Panthers had three kicks blocked this season. Kaplan, who last season made 69.2 percent of his field goals (9-of-13), made only 57.9 percent (11-of-19) in 1991.

"It affected some things," Meyers said. "It affected play-calling 00 [by coach Paul Hackett]. Teams went for it where a year ago they would have kicked it. Our situation came down to the end to we were just missing field goals. The 25-yard-line was our cutoff, originally. Outside the 25, we would think about it.

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