Another week in college football, and there is more evidence that just about everything involved with the NCAA’s targeting rule remains a complete and utter mess.
Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith was ejected in the first half against Michigan after his shoulder made contact with Michigan wide receiver Grant Perry’s helmet. He was called for targeting, and a review of the play confirmed the call and the ejection.
It was a low throw, and Smith was trying to cut in front of Perry to intercept the pass. When he lunged for the football, his shoulder made contact.
Penn State LB Brandon Smith has been ejected for targeting. pic.twitter.com/WYy7jgLNn2
— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) September 24, 2016
There was plenty of outrage on social media about the controversial call. Here’s what the best rules analyst on television had to say about the play:
I don't feel it is targeting at Michigan. No indicator. He is reaching for the ball. Contact is incidental.
— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) September 24, 2016
There are always going to examples of players getting away with something that should be called a penalty, but the number of hits that clearly look like targeting but are not called continues to grow each week.
Here’s Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley getting drilled. This was called targeting on the field, but then reversed in the booth.
Kent State safety Nate Holley called for targeting after hitting Calvin Ridley's face mask. Reviews reverse call. pic.twitter.com/SeXJdfBIeB
— Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff) September 24, 2016
A Minnesota player was called for a personal foul on a helmet-to-helmet hit against Colorado State during the early games. Upon further review, it remained a 15-yard penalty but not targeting.
This was the maybe the worst example of the erratic application of the rule and review system. Notre Dame wide receiver Torii Hunter, Jr. was drilled, and not only was there no penalty, there was no stoppage in play to review the hit.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) September 5, 2016
Here are the rules, from the American Football Coaches Association website:
Targeting and Initiating Contact With the Crown of the Helmet (Rule 9-1-3)
“No player shall target and initiate contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. When in question, it is a foul.”
Targeting and Initiating Contact to Head or Neck Area of a Defenseless Player (Rule 9-1-4)
“No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, fist, elbow or shoulder. When in question, it is a foul.”
There is no mention of intent in those two rules. When a player is trying to make a tackle, it is hard to determine that. If a player is diving to catch the ball like Smith was, his intent is painfully obvious to determine.
The defenseless player rule (9-1-4) says “no player shall target and initiate …” There is absolutely no way Smith targeted Perry’s head on that play. The rule says target AND initiate, not target OR initiate.
The NCAA’s intent is to protect young football players from dangerous hits to the head/neck area. That is obviously and absolutely the correct decision.
But the interpretation of these targeting rules and application of the review system continues to be an embarrassment for the NCAA.
Ejecting a player for trying to catch a football and having his outstretched arm hitting an opponent’s helmet when he is also falling to the ground and contorting his body is not what the targeting rule was intended to govern.
If the NCAA wants to outlaw any contact to the helmet, then write that into the rules. If there is a way to assess a penalty to Smith for contact to Perry’s head, incidental or not, then do that.
Either remove some of the grey area with the rule, or do a significantly better job of establishing a standard. Because right now, the targeting rule continues to be a well-meaning idea that isn’t doing what it was intended to do.