When Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade sacked Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence on 3rd down in the second quarter of the 2019 College Football Playoff semifinal, Ohio State was in control, up 16-0 and about to get the football back.
As Lawrence lay on the ground following the hit, the replay booth took another look at the play. When the official returned to the field, the call was targeting, giving Clemson a first down and ejecting Wade from the game.
The call shifted the momentum as Clemson took advantage of the first down and marched down the field to score. From there the comeback was on, with Clemson outscoring the Buckeyes 22-7 on their way to a victory.
At the time of the call, many fans were upset because it had such a huge impact on the game. But it was called correctly and it’s better for the sport that it was.
Targeting was created back in 2008 and the rule forbids players from making forcible contact with the crown of the helmet or making forcible contact to the head or neck area of an opponent.
Over the past 13 years, there have been some changes to the rule. In 2013, a player called for targeting was disqualified for the remainder of the game. Three years later, in 2016, targeting became a reviewable foul meaning targeting calls could be overturned and hits that were not initially called for targeting could be reviewed and reversed.
In 2019, the rule was changed again with replay being unable to let the call on the field stand. Instead, the replay booth now needs to confirm targeting based on the indicators in the rules in order for the foul to be called. If the replay booth cannot do that, there will be no targeting.
The purpose of the rule is simple. It is meant to protect the players from head to head contact. A study from the NFL found that almost 1 in 10 players had CTE which is directly caused from hits to the head and concussions. While both players and fans might not be pleased when it is enforced or with the severity of the punishment, the rule serves the purpose of keeping the players on the field safe.
Yet the targeting rule is not just meant to protect the offensive player.
A year after the Shaun Wade hit and ejection, Clemson and Ohio State squared off in the College Football Playoff semifinal once again. This time, with Ohio State on offense, quarterback Justin Fields scrambled up the middle and, as he neared the first down marker, Clemson linebacker James Skalski came flying up and lowered his head right into the back of Fields who went down quickly.
Similar to previous year’s game, the replay booth called down for a review and concluded that there was targeting on the play, resulting in Skalski getting ejected.
The targeting foul on Skalski caused both confusion and outrage among fans. They were upset because they believed that the offensive player had to be hit in the head in order for targeting to apply. Yet that is not the case. The targeting rule states that any use of the crown of the helmet is grounds for the penalty and in Skalski’s case the call was made correctly.
Defensive players are just as vulnerable to head injuries when they use the crown of their helmet to make tackles. The targeting rule is not just to prevent the big hits that knock an offensive player’s helmet off or leaves him unconscious, it is an attempt to persuade the defensive player from using head contact to make a tackle.
The way the targeting rule is implemented in college football, compared to the NFL, can also help the refs get calls correct. In the NFL, a targeting foul is similar to the collegiate rule, but a major difference is that the foul is not reviewable. The inability to review the call can lead to targeting fouls that should not have been called and hits to the head that were targeting according to the rules not being flagged.
The latter is what happened to the Cleveland Browns while playing the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round of the 2021 playoffs.
Down 16-3 late in the first half, Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield connected with wide receiver Rashard Higgins at the five yard line. Higgins then turned and dove for the endzone where he and Chiefs safety Daniel Sorenson collided head on.
After watching the replay, it became apparent that Sorenson had used the crown of his helmet to hit Higgins in the head, which by rule would have been a targeting foul.
For all the negative attention that college football’s targeting rule receives, its ability to use replays has the potential to help correct missed calls that are difficult for the human eye to see. Targeting is such a difficult call to make with the naked eye because the difference between what is targeting and what isn’t is the smallest of margins. Giving refs the ability to use replay, which slows the play down, can only be a benefit when making a call as tough as targeting.
At the end of the day, targeting is about player safety. The health and safety of players is much more important than the result of one game. While the penalty for targeting is severe, it is exactly how it should be with lives at stake. For that reason, the prevention of one huge hit to the head or any hit to the head at all makes the targeting rule worth it.