'Targeting' rule definitely in the crosshairs

The subjective nature of officiating the call has coaches, players on guard

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March 28, 2014 | 6:16 pm

CHICAGO -- At some point this season, a defensive player from your favorite team, probably a hard-hitting safety, will be ejected for a hard hit.

Just prepare yourself. This is a very real possibility.

In March, the NCAA announced that the playing rules oversight panel approved a new rule that would allow officials to eject players who target and contact defenseless players above the shoulders, effective for the 2013 season. The ejection would be in addition to the existing 15-yard penalty.

Players would be ejected for the remainder of the game if the penalty occurs in the first half. If the foul occurs in the second half or overtime, the player is ejected for the remainder of the game and the first half of the next contest. The ejection portion of the penalty can be subject to a video review.

This reeks with controversy and subjectivity.

During Wednesday's Big Ten media gathering, conference coaches stood behind the rule. They appear willing to accept the possible controversies under the banner of "player safety."

But . . .

"Player safety is on everyone's mind right now, and that's respect for the game," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "There is a really fine line. It's tough to officiate. I'd rank that one up there with trying to officiate an onside kick. That's a tough, tough call to make."

And Nebraska coach Bo Pelini on Wednesday: "But the scary thing to me is just what you said: It's the application part of it. And it's going to be pretty subjective. And I don't think it's an easy thing to call. And in my opinion, it's going a little bit overboard right now. And some things I've seen on TV and different examples that they've shown,you know, like even as a coach watching it on TV, I haven't quite agreed with some of the things they've talked about.

"But I understand where it's coming from. It's about the safety of the players, and we're all for that. We just have to make sure that we're not messing with the integrity of the game or the sport and how it's supposed to be played."

"Integrity of the game," that statement rings out.

Bill Carollo, the Big Ten's supervisor of officials, is well aware of the stakes. Thursday, he sounded like a man sizing up a monumental task.

“Targeting is one of your most difficult calls,” Carollo said. “Some of them are no-brainers. You see it, you hold your head and say, 'Oh my God.' Other times, it happens really fast. These kids are great athletes. Did he get him in the shoulder? In the numbers? Did he slide up and get him in the neck area?

“Did he launch? Did he leave his feet, Did he use the crown of his helmet? Did he target him? That's a lot of questions in a split second.”

Ejections are rare. According to chairman of the NCAA Football Rules Committee and Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, there were 99 targeting penalties called in the Football Bowl Subdivision that, under the proposed rule, would have called for an ejection.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, who's in his first season with the Badgers, remembered when his free safety was ejected in a game when he was at Utah State. The Aggies gave up a late pass completion down the middle of the field, where the free safety would've been, and lost the game.

"It was our second year at Utah State, McKade Brady was a safety for us," Andersen said. "When he got thrown out, I didn't agree with the call, but he got thrown out. We get beat on a throw down the middle of the field, and then they [WAC officials] came back and said it was an iffy call, a bang-bang play that the official didn't really see.

"But he did see it, and he made the call. You've got to support the call. It's an interesting dynamic in college football. We'll see where it goes, but I do want to protect the kids. I also would hate to take one of their 12 guaranteed opportunities on a 'maybe.'"

Everyone wants to play. An ejection is the mightiest weapon that can be swung in the name of player safety.

That word has the players' attention.

"When you hear the word 'ejection,' it's kind of a scary thing," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. "That's a strict penalty. And it's not always the defensive player, sometimes the offensive player, based on their movement, creates the contact, the helmet-to-helmet. It's tough, there's a lot of gray area."

Linebackers are the ones to talk to on this subject. They play a contact position. They are on the front lines.

Listen to the linebackers.

“It's embarrassing,” Michigan State middle linebacker Max Bullough said. “I'm like the old-school football guy. Let us play. We played football our whole life. We know the risks, we know the rewards. You sign up for a construction job, you might get hit in the head.”

Iowa linebacker James Morris is a two-time academic all-Big Ten selection. He's razor sharp and gives great thought to the answers he gives on any topic. Defensive football just got a littler tougher. This rule, potentially, is set up to penalize a defensive player for doing his job.

"I don't want to say this to be inflammatory, but it [the new rule] is probably a little hypocritical," he said. "We have opposing goals, right? I want to stop them; he wants to get past me. But he has more 'tools,' we'll say, for him to get past me.

"I guess you could say it's hypocritical, but from a marketing standpoint, it's another rule that helps the offense, similar to a pass interference penalty or a defensive holding, because we all know people want to see touchdowns," Morris said to set up his point. "That makes it easier. You could make that argument. I don't think that's where the rule change is coming from. I think they're doing it from a perspective of trying to protect offensive players.

"In doing that, they've created an imbalance, but there are a lot of imbalances from the perspective of rules. I'm not going to sit here and complain about it. There are all sorts of rules."

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