Calling offensive cease-fires a gray area in college football

A reader has taken issue with what he considered a potshot on this page. The complaint centered around the suggestion that Iowa's football team had been unsporting in allowing All-America quarterback Chuck Long to embellish his passing statistics late in a 49-10 victory over Northwestern. Long set a Big Ten record in the game with six touchdown passes, the last of which came in the fourth quarter.

``I've not seen your journalistic ire raised by the playing time of [Auburn's] Bo Jackson or any other Heisman candidate in any of several lopsided victories,'' the letter writer pointed out.

True, the playing time of other individuals hasn't been called into question, although sometimes it should have been. In Jackson's case, however, he usually has been pulled early in the fourth quarter once Auburn had big leads.

Basically the situation with Long reopens the timeless debate about when and if a team should ease off the accelerator.

This season, like every other, has produced a fair share of whopping victories. Nebraska accounted for several (63-0 over Oregon; 49-0 over Iowa State; and 56-6 over Kansas). Iowa beat Drake 58-0 and Iowa State 57-3, Minnesota walloped Montana 62-17, Air Force pounded Rice 59-17, and Mississippi Valley State clobbered Bishop 80-14.

Is winning by such margins morally defensible?

Georgia Tech's Bill Curry, a member of the coaches' Ethics Committee, says he personally wouldn't want his team to ever score 70 points against anybody, but adds, ``There is nothing wrong morally with playing 60 minutes full bore. The rules are right there in the book that the game is that long. If you don't like losing badly, then you better not get so far behind.''

Georgia Tech certainly never eased up in 1916, when it beat tiny Cumberland College 222-0 in the worst defeat in college history. Much more equitable competition has evolved since then, but even so, Curry realizes there might be times when his team is far ahead.

What then? Curry calls in the reserves when he senses the other team is beat or when he feels there is no mathematical possibility of a comeback, such as with a 31-point lead and 6 minutes left. The offensive replacements are also instructed not to throw the football.

Jack Bicknell, Boston College's coach, agrees with Curry that simply substituting isn't necessarily enough. ``Some guys believe if they put in their second team they have fulfilled their obligation [to be sporting]. But I don't feel that's right, because the second-team people often are as good as the starters.''

Bicknell's philosophy puts a premium on not embarrassing the opponents. ``I don't want to beat anybody by more than three touchdowns,'' he says, ``but I would never hold back in the first half. If we can get 40 points ahead, great, we can spend the second half keeping the score down.''

What makes some coaches hesitant to ease off is the impression that no lead is safe anymore -- at least until the final quarter. Maryland's incredible come-from-behind victory over Miami last year made that point.

When to clear the bench, particularly with today's more wide-open, quick-striking offenses, can be a highly subjective decision. ``You have to be very careful about your benevolence,'' says Grant Teaff of Baylor.

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