The question is not even completed, and Oregon coach Mark Helfrich just laughs.
The inquiry is about the Pac-12 and penalties, and anyone who knows about either knows we’re talking some Laurel and Hardy stuff here. This is Seinfeld at its peak, Woody Allen on uppers, a round-table discussion with Judd Apatow, Larry David, Rob Reiner and Sid Caesar.
If it wasn’t so sad.
A third of the way through the 2013 season, and once again there are more flags on Pac-12 turfs than in an Army surplus store. Look, 24-hour dry cleaners don’t handle this much laundry. Conference officials take out extra insurance on their backs because they bend down so often to pick up what they’ve haphazardly tossed to the ground.
Six Pac-12 teams, a full half, rank 96th or worse in the country in penalty yardage.
Washington ranks dead last. UCLA, third to last. Cal, eighth from last. Oregon, 12th from last.
Helfrich, whose unbeaten Ducks are No. 2 — all he can do is chuckle.
“There were certainly discussions in the offseason about some of those things,” he said. “Exactly how things we’re going to be officiated from the standpoint of the why of it.”
The why is a little bit harder to discern.
Cal coach Sonny Dykes – progenitor of the “Bear Raid” offense – concedes that the speed of the league’s offenses does naturally lead to more penalties.
Simply put: More plays equal more flags.
“It’s more of a spread-out game here,” Dykes said. “When you have all those factors, it lends itself to more penalties. But they call the games pretty tight.”
That’s the concern.
Among football’s power conferences, the Pac-12 ranks second-to-last among penalty yardage, its 12 teams ranking an average of 78th nationally. Only the Big 12, with Texas Tech (120th) and Baylor (122nd) hurting the cause, ranks worse cumulatively, at 83rd per team.
The 14 ACC schools, with Clemson and Florida State among the best teams in the country, rank an average of 53rd in penalty yardage. Boston College and Maryland both rank among the top of least-penalized teams, at fourth and ninth, respectively, but North Carolina (119th), N.C. State (100th) and Miami (98th) wade in the Pac-12 muck.
The Big Ten clocks in at a 55 average for its 12 squads, bookended by Michigan State (116th) and Nebraska (108th) on one end and Minnesota (fifth) and Penn State (sixth) on the other.
Then there’s the SEC, and its clean programs and clean play, an average of the 46th spot among 14 schools.
“We certainly have to look at the rate compared to other conferences,” Helfrich said. “Penalties per play or whatever that formula is. There are probably less delays of games and more false starts and holds.”
Added Dykes, a former UA offensive coordinator: “There needs to be some kind of standard across the board.
“I don’t know if they need national officiating … but stuff called in the Pac-12 ought to be the same stuff in the Big Ten. Sometimes it gets a little too dependent on interpretation.”
All this frequent flagging doesn’t seem to be putting a damper on the offenses, though.
Three Pac-12 teams rank among the top-5 nationally in total offense, and they just happen to be three of the most penalized teams in the conference. Oregon (630.4 yards per game), UCLA (561) and Washington (557) rank second, fourth and fifth nationally in total offense.
But the start-and-stop of numerous penalties does wreak havoc with pace, tempo and timing.
“It feels like it affects us,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “It always makes drives harder. But you’re talking about teams with good offenses, that are very capable of recovering. We’ve been able to do that better this year – better third-down team, better in long yardage. All of these teams have those capabilities.”
Of course, this is not a new issue.
Teams have adjusted, readjusted and adjusted to their readjustments.
“I’ve been aware through the years that we’ve been highly penalized,” Riley said. “Maybe our guys just keep a real good eye on the game. I know it’s not just this year.”
And it’s not as if these coaches don’t know about the loose laundry in 2013, and what it takes to address it.
Washington’s Steve Sarkisian said that if the byproduct of aggressive play and a fast offense is frequent flagging, it’s a risk he’s willing to take. At the same time, the Huskies work “diligently at it every week” to curtail sloppiness.
With middling results.
“At times it feels like we eliminate one facet of the penalties, and a couple others rear their ugly heads,” Sarkisian said.
“Do I want to be the most penalized team in the country?
One good thing for the Huskies: They are not alone at the bottom.