When a sack is not scored a sack

By Mike Churchward

I deal with a lot of technicalities and minutiae when it comes to my role in checking our football data here. There’s one that has been on my mind for awhile that I’d like to share.

Most fans of NCAA and NFL football would assume that the rules for keeping official statistics would be similar, if not identical, between the two levels. While one would be mostly correct in this assumption, there are some major differences between the two levels that can affect statistical categories.

Sacks and how they are recorded are quite different between college and the NFL. Specifically, when there is a sack and fumble behind the line of scrimmage and the ball is picked up by another offensive  player, the distinction in statistical record keeping between the two levels is notable.

If a defensive player recovers the ball, the sack rules take a different path. If the player that picks up the ball does not get beyond the original line of scrimmage while trying to advance the ball, the statistical reporting is quite different between college and the pros.

This is where one must really pay attention to what is supposed to be recorded.

The 2018 statistician guide for the NCAA states:

“Adams is back to pass, but has the ball stripped from his grasp before his arm starts going forward by Benson, causing a fumble. The ball is then recovered behind the line of scrimmage by Allen, who attempts to gain positive yardage before being tackled by Baker, still behind the line of scrimmage. Credit Benson with a forced fumble only. Credit Baker with a solo tackle and a solo tackle for loss for the yards lost to the final spot. Charge Adams with a rush attempt and minus yards rushing to the final spot. Charge Team A with a fumble not lost. Allen is not credited with any statistics on this play.”

The basic way to interpret this rule is that the defender who tackled the QB, and forced the fumble, will not get credit for anything but a forced fumble.

Think about that for a second.

There are thousands of sacks per year in a typical college football season. A large number of those sacks will have fumbles attached to them. Now if the teammate of the quarterback recovers the ball and tries to advance, but is tackled behind the line of scrimmage, then there is no sack on the play.

How odd is this rule?

While this type of sack fumble play is on the rare side, it still occurs enough that there could be a  consequence for those that keep the statistics incorrectly. This would be especially true for the players that are competing for season sack leader. In 2018 the FBS sack leader was Jaylon Ferguson of Louisiana Tech with 17.5 sacks. Josh Allen of Kentucky was second in sacks with 17. The separation between the top two is a half-sack.  In 2017 the sack leader was Sutton Smith from Northern Illinois with 14, with two players tied for second with 13. The separation between that year was only one sack.

The reason why these numbers were brought up is to show this rule could affect a major statistical category for football. Imagine if Ferguson’s chance of breaking Terrelle Suggs’ career sacks record was hurt by this scoring rule. One reason that fans have heard of Ferguson is because he now owns the mark. He wouldn’t be as well remembered if he came up one sack short.

Fortunately for Ferguson, none of the three instances of this last season impacted him. They did impact Tulsa’s Trevis Gipson (lost a sack vs SMU), Boise State’s Curtis Weaver (lost a sack vs Fresno State), and North Carolina’s Malik Carney (lost a sack vs North Carolina State).

The NFL statistician’s guideline for this type of play states:

“If a teammate or opponent recovers the fumble behind, or on, the line of scrimmage, charge the passer with sack yardage to the point of recovery. Yardage gained by teammate(s) after the recovery up to the line of scrimmage is used to reduce any yardage lost by the passer.”

This means that the player who sacked the quarterback and caused the fumble still gets credit for the sack; just the total sack yardage is reduced. This rule makes more sense on how to keep this type of statistic. This means that the defender gets credit for a sack when the offensive player who recovers the ball is still tackled behind the line of scrimmage.

That the NCAA only gives a forced fumble credit to the player that originally hit the quarterback is not telling the whole story.  It is odd that this record keeping doesn’t line up with the NFL’s method. I hope someday that it will.

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