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Pac-12 Conference needs a review of the Targeting rule

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After many blown calls or no calls by the officials, further education is needed on college football’s most controversial subject

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Colorado Buffaloes fans have screamed about targeting calls after Nate Landman’s two different ejections, but it’s been a problem throughout the conference all season. The process for ruling a targeting call is complicated and inconsistently enforced. The process of these calls requires a closer look.

The questions surrounding these calls began after Washington State played USC in a close September tilt. There had been a controversial ruling wherein Cougars linebacker Logan Tago had hit Trojans QB J.T. Daniels. The hit was an apparent targeting violation, but despite on-field officials and the Pac-12 command center agreed it was, they had been overruled by the Pac-12’s senior vice president of business affairs Woodie Dixon. He was an untrained third party who shouldn’t have been involved in the process, but there he was making a call that could have decided the game.

Yahoo Sports Pete Thamel noted afterward Dixon is not a “formally-trained official”, and officiating experts believe his interference in the replay system “undermines both the Pac-12 officiating credibility and rhetoric surrounding player safety.”

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott downplayed Dixon’s role saying he was part of a “replay collaboration team,” and instant replay supervisor Bill Richardson was the final decision maker. “The misperception that in this case, the ultimate decision from the command center was made by someone other than the instant replay supervisor is a concern,” Scott told Thamel.

Either way, Dixon’s influence over calls made on the field and upheld after replay is concerning. The Pac-12’s flawed process might have accounted for several botched calls. Here’s a few other instances from this season worth noting.

Utah defensive tackle Leki Fotu appeared to have had a clean hit on Washington quarterback Jake Browning. As both of them go to the ground, Browning’s helmet is jarred loose due to inadvertently striking one of his teammates. Upon review, Pac-12 officials concluded Fotu’s led with his helmet with forceful contact, and was ejected with 10:57 in the third quarter.

Back to the Wazzu-USC game, Trojans linebacker Porter Gustin went high leading with the crown of his helmet as Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew released the ball. Gustin clearly made forceable contact going helmet-to-helmet on Minshew, but officials didn’t call targeting on the play. At that point, Washington State was down by three points with 2:50 to go in the game on USC’s 25-yard line. A roughing the passer penalty would have placed the ball on the 10-yard line with a first and goal situation. That call may have been the difference between a win and a loss for Wazzu, and at 9-1 currently, it may be what keeps the Pac-12 out of the College Football Playoff.

In this play, Nate Landman seemed to have made the tackle on Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin without contact to the head or neck area. Targeted was called and upheld by the Pac-12 crew, forcing Landman to sit out with 9:18 left in the second quarter. Later in the game, KD Nixon had been hit much harder and with much more force up high, but that call had been (rightly) overturned. Those calls fortunately didn’t decide the game, but they could have.

In this play, USC linebacker Palaie Gaoteoto led with his helmet to tackle Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. The two players collided hard and Gaoteoto wasn’t flagged on the play, despite clear evidence that targeting should have been the correct call. The hit had been so bad that Gaoteoto had to leave the game with an injury. Yet somehow, Pac-12 officials didn’t see the play the same way.

And here’s the final, most recent example. Here, Landman was again called for targeting after tackled Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew short of the sticks. The review showed no evidence of Landman using his helmet to make the tackle or any sign of forceable contact. He did make contact with the helmet, but it was nowhere near malicious, and with how Minshew had crumpled, there was nothing Landman could do. The Pac-12 officials upheld the call on the field, and Landman was ejected with 10:57 left in the 2nd quarter. Colorado lost 31-7, though they were going to lose unless Landman had stuck around to call plays or fill in at left tackle.

For all the confusion, here’s how the current targeting rule is written, according the NCAA rulebook:

No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent (See Note 2 below) with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder. This foul requires that there be at least one indicator of targeting (See Note 1 below). When in question, it is a foul (Rules 2-27-14 and 9-6). (A.R. 9-1-4-I-VI)

“Targeting” means that a player takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball. Some indicators of targeting include but are not limited to: Launch—a player leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make forcible contact in the head or neck area A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area, even though one or both feet are still on the ground Leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area Lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet

What the Pac-12 says about targeting?

Larry Scott was asked about targeting and focused on the safety of the players.

Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre gave his take on how the targeting rule should be amended. He agrees with the safety aspect, but disagrees with how players are taken out of the game.

“I’ve been a proponent for a while that it should be like a hockey rule,” MacIntyre said. “Let’s say a guy in the first half— two minutes into the game gets a targeting call— he’s going to miss 58 minutes of the game. If the same guy gets a targeting call with two minutes left in the half, he only misses 32 minutes. That’s not an equal deal. I think it should be 15 minutes—take their helmet away and put them over on the bench. As soon as the 15-minute ‘shot clock’ goes down, he can come back in the game.”

MacIntyre also had thoughts on different punishments for certain types of hits.

“I also think there should be levels of it,” MacIntyre said. “Some hits are definite where they launch and lead with their helmet to hit in the head. When a runner is running, the runner ducks and the (defender) ducks and they call it head-to-head; to me that’s a little different. I really do. So, hopefully they’ll keep looking at it. We need to keep the rule in there, but I think it needs some tweaks to it.”

There’s no simple solution to how targeting is called, but after five years of being in place, it’s clear the Pac-12 doesn’t know what targeting is or how it should be enforced. In order for games to have more fair outcomes and for fewer places to miss time unfairly, there needs to be a revamping of this rule.