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Holding Calls In The Big Ten? Nearly Non-Existent

Are Officials Biased Against Your Favorite Team? Maybe, but not when it comes to holding

Purdue v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Nebraska has racked up plenty of penalties this season as we’ve all heard since the season began. Our beloved Huskers rank 130th - last - in penalty yardage per game, currently giving up 96 yards per game because of yellow flags.

There were many complaints about the way penalties were called in this past week’s Nebraska - Northwestern game. Husker fans felt our beloved team was getting the shaft from officials as the Wildcats were called for only one penalty in the game, that coming with less than two minutes left.

I’m not going to explain all of the penalties but I am going to give you an explanation for one specific type of penalty:


I saw many, many comments from Husker fans on our site and social media about the lack of holding calls against Northwestern. Most of the comments were along the lines of “they threw 65 passes, and there wasn’t one hold.”

Technically, the people posting those complaints were correct. There were no holds, because there were no holding calls made. Out of the 100 total passes between both teams, only one holding call was made against our beloved Huskers.

You might be tempted to think the officials are biased against your favorite team. They are not, at least when it comes to holding. It’s not just your opponent that isn’t getting called for holding. Big Ten officials don’t call holding, at all, across the entire Big Ten Conference.

I’m guessing not many have read the NCAA Football Rulebook. It is available as a PDF file for free. Anyone can download it. Anyone can read it. Few ever do. I’ll do you a favor and save you some time. Here is the section on offensive holding in the 2018 rulebook.

Holding Definition:

Holding and Use of Hands or Arms: Offense


a. Use of Hands. A teammate of a ball carrier or a passer legally may block with his shoulders, his hands, the outer surface of his arms or any other part of his body under the following provisions.

1. The hand(s) shall be:

(a) In advance of the elbow.

(b) Inside the frame of the opponent’s body (Exception: When the opponent turns his back to the blocker) (A.R. 9-3-3-VI and VII).

(c) At or below the shoulder(s) of the blocker and the opponent (Exception: When the opponent squats, ducks or submarines).

(d) Apart and never in a locked position.

2. The hand(s) shall be open with the palm(s) facing the frame of the opponent or closed or cupped with the palms not facing the opponent (A.R. 9-3-3-I-IV and VI-VIII).

b. Holding. The hand(s) and arm(s) shall not be used to grasp, pull, hook, clamp or encircle in any way that illegally impedes or illegally obstructs an opponent.

PENALTY—10 yards Penalties for Team A fouls behind the neutral zone are enforced from the previous spot. Safety if the foul occurs behind Team A’s goal line [S42].

c. Kicking Team. A player on the kicking team may:

1.During a scrimmage kick play, use his hand(s) and/or arm(s) to ward off an opponent attempting to block him when he is beyond the neutral zone.

2.During a free kick play, use his hand(s) and/or arm(s) to ward off an opponent who is attempting to block him.

3.During a scrimmage kick play or a free kick play, when he is eligible to touch the ball, legally use his hand(s) and/or arm(s) to push an opponent in an attempt to reach a loose ball.

d. Passing Team. An eligible player of the passing team legally may use his hand(s) and/or arm(s) to ward off or push an opponent in an attempt to reach a loose ball after a legal forward pass has been touched by any player or official (Rules 7-3-5, 7-3-8, 7-3-9 and 7-3-11).

Those are how the rules are written. Note the emphasis above on “on any way that illegally impedes or illegally obstructs an opponent.” That’s rather key.

Now we’re going to get to how the rules are enforced.

A few years ago I did a series of articles with an official in a Power Five conference in an attempt to have fans better understand what the officials do, how they become officials, and why they call penalties the way they do. The last of the articles specifically dealt with why officials do not call holding most of the time.

Understanding College Football Officiating - What Does It Take To Become A FCS-Level Official?

Understanding College Football Officiating - The Crew And Their Keys

Understanding College Football Officiating - Post-Snap Keys And Responsibilities

Understanding College Football Officiating - Why Don’t They Call Holding?

The article on holding contains this tidbit (although you should read all four articles if you want to better understand officiating):

Holding is easily the most controversial call in football. Fans see holding on every play, then wonder why the referees don’t call it. If you take into account the point of attack, and the concepts of advantages and disadvantages, it’s easier to understand.

One other important item on holding. Officials realize that offensive linemen hold defenders, but it’s the defenders responsibility to show the hold. In other words, it’s not enough for the defender to stand there being held. The defender must make an attempt to move away from his blocker, to go after the ball, fight off the block, and demonstrate that the offensive player is getting an advantage.

Note the bold. This is why you see holding called when a defender will throw their hands in the air or do what looks like a soccer flop. They are trying to draw the attention of the official.

You can complain about it all you want, but that’s how it works.

Now let’s look at a small sample of data.

At the beginning of this article I made the comment that Big Ten Conference officials do not call holding. It’s time to back that up.

Gamebooks are provided for every game that’s played throughout all of college football. They are provided to media as a form of providing official statistics and a game log so there is a uniform level of accuracy regarding what happened during the game. You might call them an official record.

I went through the gamebooks from this past weekend’s conference games to find the number of holding calls made throughout all Big Ten games.

Below is a table (not a very good table, I’m not the best with data) regarding the number of passes in each game by each team, and the total number of holds (defensive and offensive) and then just offensive holds.

Holding Calls Across The Big Ten

Game Team 1 Team 2 Total Passes Holds Offensive Holds Comment
Game Team 1 Team 2 Total Passes Holds Offensive Holds Comment
Iowa vs Indiana Iowa 33 Indiana 42 75 6 0
Rutgers vs Maryland Rutgers 17 Maryland 20 37 3 1 UMN
Northwestern vs Nebraska Northwestern 65 Nebraska 35 100 5 1 Nebraska
Minnesota vs Ohio State Minnesota 23 Ohio State 44 67 3 3 1 - MN 2 - OSU
Purdue vs Illinois Purdue 37 Illinois 29 66 0 3 1 - Illinois 2 - Purdue
Michigan State vs Penn State MSU 53 PSU 32 85 6 1 PSU
Wisconsin vs Michigan Wisconsin 20 Michigan 21 41 0 0 only two penalties for the game
Totals 471 9

471 passes attempts, 9 offensive holding calls. That’s... not very many, putting it mildly.

I’m confident that if we were to gather this data for several weeks we’d see a similar outcome. It might be interesting to see how it compares with other conferences, although I’m guessing we’d find the same.

Why aren’t they calling holding?

I’m not sure. You could make the argument that they are trying to make the game safer for quarterbacks standing in the pocket, but I’m willing to bet if you went back several years, you’d still find the same percentage of offensive holding calls made.

I don’t think it has a thing to do with safety, the idea that the officials don’t see it, or that there’s an inherent bias against one team or another. You could make the argument that neither team is gaining an advantage since holding calls are nearly non-existent for everyone.

If you had to make me bet $100 on the real reason?

I suspect it’s because if they threw a flag every time a fan yelled “HOLDING”, it would take about 16 hours to finish a game.