College football ties broken only by a handful of conferences

Football scores from Orono, Maine tend to trickle into agate type beyond the state's borders. But last Saturday's 58-55 final demanded more attention, and in some cases got it.

High scoring games are not too unusual. Overtime games are, and this thriller between the universities of Maine and Rhode Island went six overtimes, making it the longest in college history.

Rhode Island finally decided matters on the game's last play with a two-yard touchdown run, this after Maine had settled for a field goal on its last possession. The overtime scoring summary was a lengthy document in its own right, with nine touchdowns, eight conversions, and three field goals tacked onto the 21-21 deadlock achieved in four quarters.

For those in attendance, it was truly an unforgettable finish, but not one many spectators actually thought possible. In fact, to prevent people from exiting the stadium at the end of regulation play, the P.A. announcer explained that the game would go into overtime if necessary.

That little surprise was the result of the Yankee Conference's decision to adopt the National Collegiate Athletic Association's tie-breaker procedure last year. Other conferences that have done so are the Big Sky, the Ohio Valley, and the Mid-Eastern.

The biggest of the NCAA's football-playing members - the Alabamas, Notre Dames, Michigans, etc. - don't have the option of breaking ties. For them, a draw is a draw is a draw. That's because there is no national playoff for what are categorized as Division I-A schools.

Playoffs do exist, however, at the lower rungs of the football ladder, or at the I-AA, II, and III levels. And because they do, a means of determining winners in post-season play was devised. The procedure can be utilized in regular-season games if a conference desires, and obviously some do.

Andy Mooradian, the Yankee Conference's executive director, says that using tie-breakers guarantees the league of producing a clear-cut champion, which then automatically enters the I-AA playoff. ''The rule gives teams a chance to settle things on the field rather than send (a decision on who represents the conference) into a committee room.''

Football coaches are fond of saying, ''Ties are

like kissing your sister.'' In other words, the prospect isn't too exciting.

Maybe not, but some coaches apparently would just as soon kiss their sister as to lose in overtime. That, at least, was the feeling the other year, when the NCAA's football rules committee polled the coaches and found them opposed to overtimes by a significant margin.

Their reluctance is not that hard to understand, because a tie sure beats losing for someone under so much pressure. Dave Nelson, the rules committee secretary and a former head coach, knows the feeling. ''If I were still coaching,'' he says, ''I'd just as soon play 60 minutes and leave it at that. Sometimes a team has to give everything it has just to tie a heavily favored opponent. That's a real moral victory and it seems like the players have earned it.''

The fan in the stand, of course, doesn't always see things that way. He wants clear-cut decisions, winners and losers. The most classic case in point occurred in 1966, when Notre Dame and Michigan, two undefeated, untied superteams, met in what was called ''The Game of the Century.'' The contest ended in a 10-10 time, infuriating a lot of people who ridiculed Notre Dame for sitting on the ball in the last minutes.

Whatever the merits of playing tie-breakers, they are here to stay in the college playoffs and presumably in whatever conferences that have adopted them.

The NCAA has basically copied the four-downs, alternating-possessions system used so successfully at the high school level. But whereas the high school rules give each team the ball on the 10-yard line, the college rules place the line of scrimmage 15 yards from the end zone. That makes it possible to pick up a first down and earn another four scoring opportunities.

Nelson calls the overtime format an ''equal opportunity'' system, since each team has the same number of opportunities to score. ''This is much fairer than the way the pros do it,'' he says. ''In their sudden deaths, the team that wins the toss can score, winning the game without ever letting the other team touch the ball.''

The referee chooses the end of the field in the best condition, so that the teams don't have to shuttle from end to end. A coin toss, however, is used to determine which team tries to score first, with the team winning the toss usually electing to go second. This way, it knows exactly what it must do to win, whether to kick a field goal, score a touchdown, or go for a two-point conversion. The defensive team cannot score.

Besides Saturday's game, there have been only two other regular-season college overtimes, both involving Weber State of the Big Sky Conference.

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