Targeting penalties on the rise as players, officials get used to rule

Tuesday, 17 October 2017, 11:56:28 PM. Targeting penalties are on the rise in the Big Ten and college football as a whole as players, coaches and officials learn what will get called and what won't.

Paddy Fisher heard the referee announce the words that are poison to a defensive player: "with targeting."

He ambled over to the sideline, shaking his head. He appeared inconsolable. He first donned pads in the second grade and once said of growing up in Katy, Texas: "We eat, sleep and dream about football."

Fisher knows what comes with targeting — an ejection. And if the infraction occurs in the second half, the player is disqualified for the first half of his next game.

As replay officials reviewed the call, NU's middle linebacker found coach Pat Fitzgerald — NU's ultimate middle linebacker.

"Paddy was really, really emotional, upset at himself," Fitzgerald said. "I tried to settle him down."

Watching the replay, play-by play announcer Steve Levy commented: "Forcible contact in the head or neck area. That's textbook."

Analyst Brian Griese agreed but added: "Boy, those were clean shots back when I was playing. That was the price of doing business."

Targeting fouls are up nationally. And Northwestern, which had zero all of last season, committed two in the second half of its Oct. 7 game against Penn State.

Fisher's came on a second-and-17. He unloaded on Trace McSorley a split second after the quarterback unleashed a pass. Fisher ducked as he slammed into McSorley but not enough. The helmet of the 6-4 linebacker slammed into the chin of the 6-foot quarterback. McSorley went flying.

"Good call. Bad play on my part," Fisher said. "Should have let up. Need to be more disciplined. I told Coach Fitz I felt like I let the team down."

The question some have is not with the 15-yard penalty or the desire of college football officials to rid the game of hits to the head. But is an ejection too severe?

Fitzgerald said that Fisher's targeting infraction was "textbook. I think it will be on the 'teach tape' of what not to do."

Trickier was NU's second targeting ejection. Safety Godwin Igwebuike went helmet-first into Miles Sanders, who had just been tackled. The hit was needless and somewhat reckless. But Igwebuike made only marginal contact with Sanders.

"Godwin lowered his head and then he went: 'Uh-oh, I'm in a bad position,'" Fitzgerald said. "And then he turned to try to avoid the contact. Maybe it should have been a late hit. I just think we need to use replay to make sure it's right because taking (away) a game, that's a pretty severe penalty."

He added: "Our officials do a great job. They are first class."

Bill Carollo, the Big Ten's coordinator of football officials, said targeting calls have been on the rise. In the first 407 FBS games of 2016, there were 98 targeting calls, 26 of which were overturned.

In the first 398 FBS games this season, officials called targeting 143 times, and 39 got flipped.

That's 104 enforced targetings midway through the 2017 season — up from 72 at the same point last year.

"We will err on the side of player safety," he said.

The definition of targeting, the enforcement, the ejections ... all will be thoroughly evaluated after the season.

Some involved in the rulebook could advocate for penalizing a head coach or coordinator if a team is an outlier. Last year under coach Tracy Claeys, committed seven of the Big Ten's 17 targeting fouls.

Another possibility is to suspend a player to match the injury length of his targeting "victim."

On the flip side, some will push for a higher threshold for ejections.

Twice in Big Ten games Saturday, targeting was removed, allowing the offending player to remain in the game.

• The -Indiana game was loaded with questionable calls, but any objective person would laud the replay officials for their handling of this one:

Michigan quarterback John O'Korn scrambled and slid awkwardly (knees first) after a four-yard gain. Indiana's all-Big Ten linebacker, Tegray Scales, contacted O'Korn the instant he went down. O'Korn soft-punched his helmet to ask for the flag, and officials called targeting.

The ESPN broadcast team noted O'Korn was defenseless and that forcible contact had occurred in the head/neck area.

But analyst Brock Huard, a former quarterback, said O'Korn's late slide put the defender in a "predicament" and applauded after officials reversed the targeting call — assessing only a 15-yard penalty for a late hit.

"That was not the vicious blow we have seen in the past," Huard said. "(Scales) hits with the shoulder pad and the arm. You have to give these defenders some opportunity on a late slide."

• The - game featured a similar play. The officials removed targeting from a jarring hit on tight end Louis Dorsey after ruling that Rutgers' K.J. Gray led with his shoulder. "Not a launch," BTN rules analyst Dick Honig said on the broadcast.

Color commentator and former Illini linebacker J Leman agreed, saying: "Give the benefit of the doubt to the safety."

Fisher and Igwebuike, meanwhile, had to sit out the first half Saturday while their teammates dueled with Maryland. The Terrapins scored just seven points in the second half, with Igwebuike credited for breaking up two passes and Fisher registering four tackles, one for loss.

As painful as the disqualification was, Fisher said this: "The rules are the rules; you have to follow them. I think the NCAA committee has done a great job with (this)."

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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