ATLANTA — Remember “chopgate,” anyone?
That was the unofficial term batted about for two weeks by writers between here and western Virginia back in October when Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech had just sourly concluded the latest installment of their budding ACC rivalry.
Sourly, because a postgame difference in rules interpretations got in the way of what was a key conference contest.
In the days following the Yellow Jackets’ 28-23 upset of the then-No. 5 ranked Hokies — an upset that sent Georgia Tech fans pouring onto Bobby Dodd Stadium’s Grant Field and later marching through campus carrying a goalpost — talk centered mostly on Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer’s insistence that officials failed to penalize the Yellow Jackets for “dangerous” blocks on his players.
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“It’s not about Georgia Tech. It’s about some things that happened within this game that I think are just wrong in general,” Beamer told media the week after the game. “My points are — and I don’t just sit around and complain about something — I want to get one thing changed. And I feel like it needs to be changed for the good of the game.”
Apparently someone was listening. Whether it was Beamer’s pontification for change or just collective insistence that chop, crack back and other below-the-waist blocks need to be reviewed doesn’t matter. What is important is that the NCAA and ACC thought enough about such blocking situations that their rules committees have slightly altered the language of blocking rules going into the season. The hope is that the new language will give referees a better guide to follow when making such spur-of-the-moment and potentially game-changing foul calls.
“The key change is that a player must be facing north-south on a crack back block,” ACC officials coordinator Doug Rhoads said at last weekend’s ACC Kickoff. “The blocker’s body must be on line perpendicular to the block.”
That sentiment has always been in the rule book, but enforcement likely will be more specifically targeted toward making sure that low-diving blockers approach their defensive targets from the front and not attempting low blocks to the side or behind them.
How does this affect Georgia Tech? Well, according to head coach Paul Johnson, very minimally, if at all.
“It’s always been illegal to crack back below the waist. That’s been illegal forever,” Johnson said. “I don’t think anybody teaches that.”
But in a media seminar on officiating at the ACC Kickoff in Greensboro, N.C., Rhoads showed video of a Georgia Tech player committing — what the rules would now consider — a crack back block on a Virginia Tech player in last year’s game. The replay appeared to show the running back throwing his body back toward the line of scrimmage, to the side of the defender. He was not north-south.
“The key term in there is that you cannot block toward the original position of the ball,” Rhoads said. “Now, does the guy have to be facing magnetic north, of course we have no way of knowing if he’s facing true north, but it has to be obvious that his body isn’t being turned toward the original position of the ball (line of scrimmage). That would be a crack back.”
Unintentional or not, crack backs are a part of the offensive game, as are chop blocks. But it is the latter that most coaches will say they want cleaned up the most.
The chop block is a situation in which two offensive players — typically linemen — tie up a single defensive player with one going high toward his shoulders, while the other goes low to his legs. Injury can result as the defensive player unexpectedly has his legs taken from under him after being risen into a near prone standing position.
“The problem is the high block,” Rhodes said, “it makes the player stand up. And now when that low one comes below that thigh and at that knee, it’s a devastating blow to the player, and he goes out. Sometimes he doesn’t come back in.”
In Beamer’s discussion with Virginia media last October, that was the point he most tried to emphasize.
“It’s a dangerous part of football,” he said. “Generally speaking, the only way that you solve it is if a guy’s engaged or if he’s involved with a guy at all in any way, then you can’t chop him. You’ve got to block him higher. Then I think that takes care of our problem.”
For Georgia Tech center Sean Bedford, who for the past two seasons has been taught to block below the waist, that cannot be an option.
“One thing that we like to talk about in the offensive line (meeting) room is that it’s a chop-block only if it’s a high-low. Now, if you’re both going low and you both stay low, then there’s nothing illegal about that,” Bedford said. “So we have to really make an emphasis on staying lower and not letting our chests get up and just playing with better leverage.”
That point has been drilled home to the Yellow Jackets’ linemen, who go low strictly because it’s the best method to open up a run-oriented offense such as theirs.
“(Co-offensive line coach Todd Spencer) is always real animated,” Bedford said.
Breaking into his best impression of the distinctive, grovel-sounding voice of his assistant coach, Bedford added, “He likes to say, ‘We’re playing under a chicken wire cage.’ We want to be playing about a foot-and-a-half off the ground, and if we can play in that range, everything else will take care of itself.”
Rhoads, who said the rules changes are not directed toward Georgia Tech’s scheme, understands just why there is a disconnect between coaches who subscribe to the high-block only and the low-block only schools of thought.
“We’ve taken (low blocking) out of the college game except for the running game,” Rhoads said. “That’s the last vestige of below-the-waist blocking, and it depends on what coach you talk to. If they’re a running offense and an offensive-minded coach, then they say, ‘You can’t establish a running game without blocking below the waist. You can’t get the kind of blocks in there because of the size of the linebackers, the speed of the linebackers, the size of the defensive linemen.’ ”
He was quick to point out that several other teams across the country run offenses with blocking schemes similar types to Georgia Tech’s, including Navy, Johnson’s former program.
“You should see those guys. Navy and some schools have some 145-, 165-pound backs going up against 240-pound linebackers, so of course those coaches are going to say, ‘Oh, you can’t take blocking below the waist out of the game,’ ” Rhoads said. “And I appreciate that.
“By the same token, the only way you’re going to make it — and this is not a term — officiateable is to take it out. Because then the official knows. Above, below, it’s simple.”
While the officials director cannot foresee such a day coming when below-the-waist blocking is totally outlawed in the college game, he understands that issues like this put the impetus on the referees to better themselves.
So what is his message to his employees forced to make such split-second decisions on blocking infractions?
“Make it be big; when in doubt, let it go; make it be at the point of attack and study, study, study it,” Rhoads said.