The biggest controversy during the 2013 college football season hasn’t (yet) been the Bowl Championship Series, the oft-maligned and on-its-way-out system for determining a national champion. Instead, its been a new “targeting” rule, which the NCAA instituted before the season to reduce dangerous hits particularly on defenseless players and improve safety on college football fields. Almost from the outset, the rule was questioned by coaches, players, fans, and members of the media, especially when former NFL officiating chief Mike Pereira declared that Jadaveon Clowney’s famous dumptrucking of Michigan running back Vincent Smith in last year’s Outback Bowl would, under these rules, merit an ejection.
The complaints about the rule haven’t ceased since. The purpose of the targeting rule is fine, and many of the hits that have drawn flags needed to be penalized. But a somewhat inconsistent application and questions about what, exactly, deserves a penalty and the resulting ejection that comes with it has hurt a rule aimed at reducing the number of helmet-to-helmet and helmet-initiated hits. A perfect example of that inconsistency and those questions happened in a short span during a Southeastern Conference tilt between Kentucky and Vanderbilt this weekend.
In about a 10 minute stretch, both Vandy and Kentucky were flagged for targeting. Such penalties are immediately subject to video review, and while one was upheld, the other was not. But looking at the plays in slow-motion, it’s hard to see a difference between the two. Here’s the first, in which Kentucky safety Eric Dixon levels Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews:
Dixon made what most coaches used to consider a solid play on the football. He tried to break up the pass and the primary point of contact is his shoulder to Matthews’ shoulder. Still, this is one of the types of hits the targeting rule was specifically designed to prevent.
The specific rules state that “no player shall target and initiate contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet” and that “no player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder.” According to a preseason officiating handout, the NCAA outlined four major criteria that would make a targeting penalty likely: 1) Launching toward an opponent to make contact in the head or neck area, 2) A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust with contact at the head or neck area, 3) Leading with the helmet, forearm, fist, hand or elbow into the head or neck area, and 4) Lowering the head before attacking and initiating with the crown of the helmet.
Dixon didn’t clearly violate any of the final three, but he did launch into the hit, and though he hits Matthews’ shoulder, it could be argued that he also made contact in the head and neck area or easily could have. And no matter, Matthews was clearly a defenseless player, the type the rule is designed to protect. After review, the penalty and Dixon’s ejection were upheld.
The second happened a few minutes later. Moments after Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow released a pass, Vandy lineman Caleb Azubuike flattened the passer and drew a flag:
This would have been a classic roughing the passer penalty even under the old rules. Under the new ones, Azubuike was called for targeting and ejected. To me, it appeared the right call. It seemed that Azubuike, also aiming at a defenseless player (like it or not, both quarterbacks and wide receivers are protected players under the new rules), lowered his head and used it to initiate contact with Whitlow. It appeared his head hit Whitlow above the chest, making contact with the quarterback’s helmet. Even if Azubuike received a slight push from a Kentucky offensive lineman before the hit, it seemed like his ejection should stand because the rule prohibits head-to-head contact and leading with the crown of the helmet.
And yet, officials reviewed the play and determined that Azubuike didn’t target Whitlow and thus could remain in the game. That was the correct call, according to ESPN analyst Andre Ware, but I’ve looked at the rule criteria and watched the clip a dozen times and can’t understand why one of those hits merited a targeting call and the other didn’t. They both look fairly similar, and whatever Azubuike gains in not “launching” at Whitlow he loses in that he clearly used his head to initiate contact. I reached out to the SEC for comment, but per protocol, the league does not comment on specific officiating decisions or plays, including targeting, a spokesperson said.
These aren’t the most controversial targeting calls of the year and neither really had an impact on the outcome of the game. But they are indicative of some of the issues that have been raised, especially since they happened in the same game in a short time period. Many helmet-to-helmet hits on defenseless players — especially those from defensive backs on wide receivers — are easy to discern and penalize. But then there are plays like these, where neither the intent nor the outcome are clear. They’re both somewhere in the gray area between solid football plays and the types of hits the NCAA wants to (and should) try to eliminate. That gray area, as these two hits show, is tough to define and legislate.
That doesn’t mean college football needs to get rid of or weaken the rule, as some coaches have suggested, especially since the stronger rules and penalties appear to be working: the number of targeting calls through October dropped from 2012, according to SEC officiating coordinator Steve Shaw. It does mean, though, that the NCAA should use the offseason to review the way the penalty has been called and bring clarity and consistency to the rule in a way that will continue improving safety on college football fields.