In the first quarter of Saturday afternoon's game between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the Gophers appeared to have Nebraska stopped on downs in the first quarter. Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez attempted to pitch a ball to one of his backs on 4th-and-1 from the Minnesota 13-yard line. The ball went off of the hands of the Nebraska player, and bounced out of bounds past the first down marker.
The Gophers thought they had a change of possession, but the referees ruled that Nebraska got to keep the ball at the spot where the ball went out of bounds. Since that spot was beyond the first down marker, the Cornhuskers got a first down, and scored a touchdown two plays later.
We have found clarification for the rule in the NCAA Football Rulebook. Rule 7, Article 4 reads as follows:
a. Backward Pass. When a backward pass goes out of bounds between the goal lines, the ball belongs to the passing team at the out-of-bounds spot.
b. Fumble. When a fumble goes out of bounds between the goal lines:
1. In advance of the spot of the fumble, the ball belongs to the fumbling team at the spot of the fumble (Rule 3-3-2-e-2).
2. Behind the spot of the fumble, the ball belongs to the fumbling team at the out-of-bounds spot.
The play was ruled to be a backwards pass, and not a fumble. Therefore, the referees were correct in giving Nebraska the ball at the spot that it went out of bounds, in this case beyond the first down marker.
It's still a dumb rule, in this writer's opinion, but it is, indeed, the rule.