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Common NCAA football penalties and referee hand signals

A reference list of the most frequent NCAA football penalties with referee hand signal gifs to accompany them. Enjoy.

Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

Here's an annotated list of the more common penalties you'll see in a college football game, complete with GIFs of the referee's hand signals because Jeff Collier is a wizard.

If you care to look at the official NCAA rule book, you can find the PDF here

If you want a complete list of penalties for NFL, NCAA and High School, here is a convenient Wikipedia page


OFF: 10 yards from the line of scrimmage and replay the down.

DEF: 10 yards


Holding is a live ball foul, and pretty self explanatory. You cannot grab another player, but it happens all the time at the line of scrimmage. Holding can be called on every single play, making complaining about holding a constant refrain from student sections and bar stools everywhere.

There are actually six types of holding; tackling (not a ball carrier), takedown (any judo style throwing of a player to the ground), pullover (when a lineman gets trucked and pulls the defender down with him), hook and restrict (using an arm bar), grab and restrict, jerk and restrict.

Hands to the face

OFF: Personal foul, 15 yards

DEF: Personal foul, 15 yards, automatic first down


You cannot hit an opposing player in the face. Most commonly happens at the line of scrimmage.

Face mask

OFF: Personal foul, 15 yards

DEF: Personal foul, 15 yards from the end spot of the play, automatic first down


Hands to the face is a hitting, pushing or general striking motion. A face mask involves grasping and pulling or twisting. It does not have to be intentional, inadvertent grasping of the face mask is still penalized.

Personal foul

OFF: 15 yards

DEF: 15 yards from the end spot of the play, automatic first down


These are penalties related to conduct or safety - hitting a player out of bounds, defenseless receiver, helmet to helmet, piling on. You'll see a personal foul hand signal immediately before some other penalties that fall under the conduct and safety umbrella.


OFF: 15 yards*

DEF: 15 yards


Unsportsmanlike infractions are non-contact related -- abusive language, taunting, sideline infractions (coaches outside the coaching box). *If the unsportsmanlike conduct is committed by the offense, during a play, before the ball crosses the goal line and a touchdown is scored, the touchdown is nullified and the penalty is assessed from the spot of the foul.


DEF: 5 yards


Prior to the snap, a defensive player crosses the neutral zone and either makes contact, or has a clear path to the quarterback. The play is blown dead and not allowed to proceed.

Illegal shift

OFF: 5 yards


Not more than one player may be in motion at the same time. If multiple players are in motion before the snap (i.e. going from the huddle to the line of scrimmage) all eleven players must be motionless for one second before the snap.

False start

OFF: 5 yards


After being set, any movement that simulates the start of the play is not allowed. This is illegal movement prior to the snap and the play will be blown dead.

Illegal forward pass

OFF: 5 yards from the spot of the foul and a loss of down


You can't throw a forward pass past the line of scrimmage. You also cannot throw more than one forward pass during a play. It is also illegal to attempt a forward pass on a change of possession...but imagine how crazy that would make the game if that was allowed.

Roughing/Running into the kicker

DEF: (running) 5 yards, (roughing, personal foul) 15 yards and automatic first down


Kickers are more protected than quarterbacks, you can't touch them. Well you can run into the kicker if you touch the ball on a block attempt. If you don't touch the ball, can't touch the kicker. Running and roughing are separated by the severity of the contact, and it's pretty much a judgement call by the referee. If the contact is deemed intentional, automatically a roughing call. Punters milk this too, flopping is pretty common anytime someone is close, as they try and draw a penalty.

Roughing the passer

DEF: 15 yards and an automatic first down (from the end of the play if pass is completed)


A defender is not allowed to hit, tackle, or otherwise run into the passer after it is "obvious the pass has been thrown". The count of steps exception is for the NFL only, it doesn't apply to college football. The only exception in college is if the defender was blocked into the passer. A change of possession is nullified by this penalty as well, if the passer throws a pick, it doesn't count.

Ineligible receiver downfield

OFF: 5 yards


Numbers 50-79 are not eligible receivers unless declared to the official prior to the game and announced as such when they enter the field. They cannot go past the neutral zone (3 yards) until the ball is thrown during a forward pass. Jailbreak/bubble screens are not forward passes, they occur behind the line of scrimmage, therefore lineman can get downfield and block. Offensive lineman can also not catch a pass unless it is touched by a defender first.


OFF: 6 points


*Fist pump optional, not encouraged for officials

Blocking below the waist - Chop block

OFF: 15 yards

DEF: 15 yards and an automatic first down


This penalty is called a "chop block" if a player hits an opponent that is already being blocked, below the waist. The second block must be above the waist, no "high/low-ing" oppponents.

Blocking below the waist - Clipping

OFF: 15 yards

DEF: 15 yards and an automatic first down


When someone contacts a non-ball carrying opponent from behind at or below the waist, that is a clip. Clipping is more common from the defense or during special teams play.


DEF: 2 points and possession, opponent free kicks from their own 20 yard line


Ball becomes dead behind the goal line, it is a safety. If it goes out of bounds (except on a forward pass attempt) or the ball carrier is ruled down on, above, or behind the goal line, or the ball becomes dead by rule and the defending team is responsible for it being there, safety.

Pass interference

OFF: 15 yards

DEF: Lesser of either 15 yards or the spot of the foul, and an automatic first down (ball placed at the 2 yard line if penalty occurs in the endzone)


You cannot make contact with the intended receiver, hindering their ability to catch the ball, from the release of the ball by the passer, until it is touched by another player. For offensive receivers, this applies from the snap through the catch or touching by another player. This prevents WR from screening defenders downfield.

We didn't get everything, so here's the official NCAA diagrams of every referee hand signal