The game of football is played on a rectangular field that is 120 yards long (100 yards of playing space, plus two end zones on either side that are 10 yards each). There are 11 players on the field at a time for each of the two teams. Just like basketball, the "offense" is the team that currently has possession of the ball, and the "defense" is the team that doesn't have possession of the ball. Phew! :)
The game consists of four 15-minute quarters. The clock only stops running when there is a time out or a penalty called, when the ball or the person carrying the ball goes out of bounds, there is an incomplete pass (the quarterback throws the ball, but no one catches it), or the team with the ball gets a "first down" (we'll get to that later).
At the start of each half and after each touchdown or field goal, possession of the ball goes to the other team, and the defense (the team who just scored) places the ball at their 35 yard line and kicks it toward the other team (called a "kickoff"). The other team tries to catch the ball and run it back to the other side of the field as far as possible. If the ball is kicked into the end zone and no one catches it or the player catching it does not run with it (he can choose to kneel down on one knee in the endzone instead), that is called a "touchback" and the first play will start at the offense's 20 yard line. If the player catching the ball sees there is no hope of running it back, he raises his hand, signaling for a "fair catch". In that case, the defense may not tackle him and he may not run with the ball after it is caught. Play will then resume from the same place he caught the ball.
After each kickoff, the offense has 4 chances or plays (called "downs") to move the ball a total of 10 yards or more. The starting point is called the "line of scrimmage." If they succeed in moving at least 10 yards, they get a "first down", which means they get 4 more downs to move 10 more yards. Each down ends when the player with the ball is either stopped or goes out of bounds or if there is an incomplete pass. A player is stopped when his knees touch the ground either because he was tacked by a defensive player or because he fell. Ideally, the offense tries to cover the 10 yards in 3 plays or less. If they don't make it in 3 plays, they use the 4th down to kick the ball as far away from their endzone as they can (this is called "punting"). If they choose not to punt on 4th down but they don't complete the 10 yard distance, the other team gets the ball from the same spot (and they are a lot closer to scoring than if the other team had chosen to punt). If the offense is close enough to the endzone on 4th down, they may also choose to try to kick a field goal. If the field goal misses, the ball is turned over and the other team gets the ball from the same spot.
These are some of the penalties that can be called, resulting in either a loss or gain of yards for either team:
- "Off sides"- when the defense moves too quickly before the ball is snapped. Results in a 5-yard penalty (the offense automatically moves forward 5 yards).
- "False start"- when the offense moves too quickly before the ball is snapped. Results in a 5-yard penalty (the offense automatically moves backwards 5 yards).
- "Delay of game"- when the offense takes more than 25 seconds to start the play. Results in a 5-yard penalty.
- "Intentional grounding"- when the quarterback throws the ball on the ground to prevent loss of yardage when he is sacked. Results in a 5 yard penalty and loss of a down. The alternative to being called for intentional grounding is to throw the ball out of bounds past the line of scrimmage.
- "Holding"- I'll be honest. I really don't know what constitutes holding. But it's a 10-yard penalty.
- "Pass Interference"- Interfering with a pass (i.e. you can't tackle or grab a receiver who is trying to catch the ball). 15 yard penalty and an automatic first down.
- "Unnecessary Roughness"- Tackling someone after the play is over or when they don't have the ball anymore. 15 yard penalty and automatic first down.
- "Facemask"- Grabbing another player by the facemask. 15 yard penalty.
- "Unsportsmanlike conduct"- Being a jerk, arguing with the refs, or celebrating too much. 15 yard penalty.
Sometimes penalties will actually be an advantage to the offending team. In that case, the other team may "decline" the penalty. For example, if there was a holding call on the defense, but the offense ran the ball 30 yards during the play, they could accept the penalty and only gain 10 yards on the play, or they could decline the penalty and keep the 30 yards they ran. Pretty sure they'd decline that one...
If the game is tied at the end of the 4th quarter, the game goes into overtime. Unlike basketball, there isn't a set amount of time added to the clock. Instead, each team gets the ball on the other team's 20 yard line once and tries to get a touchdown or field goal. If they are still tied at the end of overtime, they go into double overtime, and so on. If they reach a third overtime or more, they are required to attempt a two-point conversion after a touchdown.
Once again, I've probably not covered even close to everything there is to know about football. But it's a start. Can't wait to see my Cougars in the spring game in a few weeks!