The Mystery of the FBS Penalty Record

    Week 13: Written by Ryan Nanni

This newsletter aims to bring you, the reader, something from the storage boxes of college football history that might be overlooked, undercovered, or simply unknown to most people. This is inherently challenging; if these stories were easy to find, they would likely be well-known, but I enjoy digging through old newspaper archives and school documents to see what I can unearth.

But not all treasure hunts pay off, so today, I’m going to share with you a failure. This is the story of the day San Jose State and Fresno State set the record for combined penalties in a game – 36, for 317 yards – in 1986, and why I can tell you almost nothing about the details of that record.

The game itself got plenty of attention. The Bulldogs came into it ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1942 and riding a 15-game unbeaten streak. That looked immediately vulnerable, though, when the Spartans jumped out to a 24-0 lead…which Fresno State responded to by scoring 31 unanswered in return. After a little more back and forth, San Jose State threw a pick, and Fresno drained a bunch of clock before kicking a field goal to take a 10-point lead with 1:15 to play. Many fans started filing out, and the media members left the press box to head for the locker rooms.

They had to stop on the way and watch the rest of the proceedings from the stands because San Jose State cut the lead to three in just 23 seconds of game clock, recovered an onside kick, and scored the go-ahead touchdown with a full 18 seconds to spare. Spartans 45, Bulldogs 41, an instant classic that gave newspaper reporters plenty to chew on for their writeups.

And that is part of what created a problem for 2023 Me. A newspaper is a physical object that can only contain so much information. Sportswriters at the time very logically decided to focus on the drama of the game itself and the dueling heroics and the penalty record was reduced to the following footnote in that Sunday’s Fresno Bee: “The game provided an NCAA penalties record – 36 by the two teams, including 24 by San Jose. That broke the old record of 35 penalties, ironically set by the Bulldog and Spartans in a 1981 game at Bulldog Stadium.”

Hang on. The team that committed the vast majority of these penalties won? And the record that was surpassed was held by these exact two teams just a few years earlier? Surely, there had to be more detail on this somewhere!

But there wasn’t. As I read through newspaper after newspaper, I only identified five of the penalties as described by postgame columns. San Jose State was flagged for celebrating after the game-winning touchdown. Fresno State kept one Spartan drive alive by having too many players on the field. Then it helped San Jose State on another by committing three personal fouls on one defensive possession. (There’s also a note that fans poured their drinks on Fresno State’s quarterback, Kevin Sweeney, when he got close to the stands after running out of bounds at one point, though it doesn’t seem like that led to a flag.)

That’s it.

There’s no video of this game available publicly, which isn’t surprising but is a little frustrating given that one YouTube hero has uploaded the entirety of the games Fresno and San Jose played in 1987, 1988, and 1989, as well as a few other full games from different parts of Fresno State’s 1986 season. And, outside of some of the bigger programs, it’s rare to find anything like a detailed box score or a play-by-play from a game this old.

Sadly for both of us, I’m left with several unanswered questions. Were these penalties the obvious sort that doesn’t leave room for subjective interpretation, or was this a case of an officiating crew getting tough on holding and pass interference calls? Did each of the 22 starters for San Jose State draw at least one flag, or were a couple of players putting in the bulk of this penalty work? What kind of bizarre downs and distances did all these transgressions create? Were both coaches accepting every penalty against the other team, or could the total of 36 have gone even higher?

I will close with this: if you have access to a) a video of this game or b) a time machine, please let me know. I promise to use either responsibly and only to learn more about this day when two teams drew more penalties than Navy did in the entire 2014 season.


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