Explaining the new targeting rules

It turned out to be one of the more controversial calls in Saturday night’s game.

Early in the fourth quarter, Trevor Siemian completed a third-down pass to Christian Jones for a gain of 10 yards. It was enough to get the Wildcats out of a hole from their own 10-yard line and pick up a third and three. It was only insult to injury that Cal defensive lineman Chris McCain was called for a roughing the passer penalty as he drove Siemian to the ground in the end zone well after Siemian had released the ball.

Then the referees discussed and assessed an additional penalty.

The helmet to helmet hit was called targeting and McCain was ejected. It was an ejection that was later confirmed.

An already upset partisan crowd in Berkeley went nuts over the call. Just a year ago, it would have been a simple 15-yard penalty and everyone would move on. It was the ejection that was new. McCain did not help matters by saluting the crowd on his way out, celebrating like he had done something to be proud of rather than commit a dangerous penalty that could have injured a young man unnecessarily.

The 15-yard penalty pushed Northwestern to the 35-yard line and carried on a drive that would set up the go-ahead field goal to give the ‘Cats a 30-27 lead it would not relinquish. It was momentum turning and forced a Pac-12 honorable mention defensive end from the game (as you will see later, also forced him from the first half of next week’s game against Portland State).

This was the product of one of the newer rules in the NCAA. With all the reports and studies coming out about concussions in football, the NCAA implemented rule changes this year to try and promote a safer game and to protect offensive players, and particularly “defenseless” offensive players. The new targeting rules are designed specifically for hits above the shoulders on defenseless players. The rule was approved in February and March. Teams and players have known it was coming.

Admittedly, there is still going to be an adjustment period. Players will get trapped by the rule as they adjust to the new reality.

The basis of the rule was described by former NFL referee Mike Pereira in his review of several plays for Fox Sports:

The targeting rule is as follows:


• No player shall target and initiate contact vs. opponent with the crown of his helmet.


• No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent.


The automatic ejection is the new part. A 15-yard penalty is one thing, an ejection is huge, especially if it happens in the second half of a game — because it carries over to the first half of the next game.

That is about as simply as it can be explained. Pereira provides some examples in the link above from this weekend’s games. The McCain hit was not one of them, but you can see why the officials made the call.

If you watch the play — at the 8:10 mark on NUHighlights’ weekly highlight reel — you will see the hit is late (if just late, if you are of the Cal persuasion). McCain does not launch himself at Siemian. However, he does bury his helmet into Siemian as he releases.

This is where McCain would run afoul of the rule. As the rule states above, no player shall target and initiate contact vs. opponent with the crown of his helmet. This goes hand in hand with the “heads up” tackling technique U.S. football is trying to promote in youth coaching. McCain’s head is down and he is looking to bury Siemian into the dirt.

It is the helmet-to-helmet contact that makes the play all the worse. Because McCain lowers his head as he goes for the hit, the helmet makes contact with Siemian’s helmet. If McCain has made a form tackle with his head up (again, this has been a point of emphasis with youth coaches, and so the NCAA and NFL are making a point to penalize these crushing hits on defenseless players), he might have been flagged still for roughing the passer, but it definitely would not have been a targeting penalty and would not have resulted in an ejection.

Adding further controversy to this issue, the Pac-12 rescinded the suspension Monday. The Pac-12, according to the USA TODAY’s report, said there was a technical failure with the video review process. The report further goes on to say that no video review took place during the game which allowed the conference to review the play after the fact.

We know this is not true. The play was reviewed during the game. We did not see what exactly was reviewed, but considering penalties cannot be reviewed, the only conclusion was that officials did, in fact, review the hit before finalizing the ejection.

Add another wrinkle of controversy to this game.

Now, what is not targeting.

What is not targeting is what Nick VanHoose Ibraheim Campbell did a few drives later. VanHoose Cambell grabbed running back Khalfani Muhammed’s facemask on a tackle. It was a nasty facemask and a 15-yard penalty. The broadcasters, Mark Davis and Brock Huard, began wondering whether this could be considered targeting. Huard especially seemed to be wondering whether VanHoose Campbell should be ejected for this hit.

The letter of the rule though is pretty clear. This is not targeting. Targeting is a tackle on a defenseless player that involves helmet-to-helmet contact or lowering the head and hitting above the shoulders. This was not that. This was a facemask. And the receiver was far from defenseless.

This is a rule that is going to take some adjustment throughout the season. It is a new rule and perfectly legal hits might get caught in the crosshairs as coaches learn how to coach their players to avoid the rule and players learn how to play under it. There will be hiccups — but that is what the video review is supposed to mitigate.

  • SDcat

    I am of the view point as to not play pac12 teams any more. (And I live in California). After the whole game star time issue, this just adds to it. Plus it is very tough to travel out west on teams. To take away the suspension is terrible. Just another example of the ncaa having no teeth. I am surprised the conference can over turn this. Obviously they caved to the whining of Cals ad and coach.

    • calling all toasters

      What makes it doubly depressing is that with a real coach McCain would sit out more than the first half of the next game for his post-call antics anyway. Bigelow, too. Cal is a truly classless operation

  • cece

    Fitz talked about this new rule in his B1G day presser. He said not only has the team reviewed video, but an official was coming in and they would pay close attention to what that official had to say about what’s good and what is not. So when the rule played a big role in the game, we all knew…Fitz was ready. Making the game safer is important, and I believe Fitz also spoke of how that will evolve in years ahead. As the game gets more complex and certain really aggressive moves are, in effect, taken out, I believe smarter players benefit. Also, smarter coaches, and ones not like Blankin’ Sonny Dykes.

    • DT

      Good points, C… Right on…

  • Jonathan Hodges

    On the overturning of the suspension after post-game review by the Pac-12: according to the statement that was released it sounds like although they called for a review (correctly) of the ejection there was a technical failure that did not allow them to review the hit (on review the only thing they can look for is if the player actually made contact with the victim’s body above the shoulders – if they did not then they can overturn the ejection but not the penalty itself).

    I was at the game and the officials certainly did not explain the situation at all leading to mass confusion amongst most fans and likely some coaches and players. I had to explain what was going on to those around me and I only know because I’m a bit obsessive about rules and rules changes. After the review the official seemed to indicate that the penalty was upheld, which is a misleading statement since the penalty cannot be reviewed/overturned, only the ejection. (I’ll have to review the tape to see if there was anything further).

    • Philip Rossman-Reich

      The referees seemed to suggest that a review was conducted. They held McCain on the field during this time period. There might have been a technical error that prevented the replay from actually taking place. It should have been explained better. As it stands, it feels very fishy what the Pac-12 did in rescinding it. It seemed like it was targeting just based on the fact he hits Siemian with the crown of his helmet. The “heads up” technique is the big emphasis in teaching tackling, coaches have to let guys know this is the proper way to tackle.

  • Philip Rossman-Reich

    Quick correction: it was Ibraheim Campbell on te face mask not Nick VanHoose. Will correct the article text when I get a chance.

    • calling all toasters

      I was wondering. Van Hoose had a hit on the next drive where there was helmet-to-helmet contact. Although he turned his helmet away at the last instant, and the hit was on a ballcarrier moving forward, the announcers played dumb again and acted like there was a real question as to if he should be ejected.

      • wcgrad

        VanHoose’s hit appeared to be initiated with the shoulder to shoulder first with the helmets having some incidental contact. In addition VanHoose’s cleats stayed on the ground whereas Harris’s did not. I’m interested in what constitutes “launching” because it sure looked like “launching” to me based on the replay.

  • Next Cat

    PRR — Not sure on what basis you can say “we know this is not true” w/ respect to the Pac-12’s statement that a technical failure prevented video review of that play during the game. Per J.Hodges, the ref in the stadium said or implied there’d been a review but we have no particular reason to believe him more than the Pac-12’s statement issued yesterday. I’m more inclined to believe the latter.

    Gotta respectfully disagree w/ SDcat — we need to play MORE Pac-12 games, not fewer. If we want to be a national program, we gotta play a national schedule. Challenges are to be overcome, not avoided. We’ve made some inroads in recruiting out here but we could do better and while personally I don’t mind watching Northwestern football in my favorite, NU-alum owned, SF sports bar over breakfast at 9:00 a.m., I can guarantee you those 11:00 a.m. CT games do NOTHING to create visibility for us on the west coast. You want to get noticed by high school athletes out here? Occasionally play a game that starts — and is nationally televised — at 7:30 PT on a Saturday night.

    And, it’s a bit foolish to not feed this rabid, good-sized NU fan base out here w/ a game or three every decade or so. I think we showed Saturday night just how hungry we are to show the Cats some west coast love.

    Plus, I want Sailgate III. Let’s put U of Washington on the schedule. Nothing like sailing to a Huskies game in Seattle!

    (Did you know NU played a home & away series against USC & UCLA in the late 60’s? Did not know that until an alum was telling me about watching O.J. Simpson at then-Dyche Stadium during his Heisman year.)

    • LTP

      We are playing Stanford for years to come. Pac12 is already on the schedule as are return trips to Bay Area.

    • Arnie

      OJ’s longest run that day was 15 yards

  • David

    On the final kickoff of the 1st half, Lasco targeted…he launched and lead with the crown of his helmet. That hit was the most clear instance of targeting which should ave resulted in ejection. The Refs met and decided that the runner changed positions. Replay shows that the Refs were wrong.

    The VanHoose hit was not even close to a penalty. VanHoose’s head was turned to the side and the runner struck the side of his helmet.

  • Mark

    Maybe I missed it but can we note for the record that Jack Marshall’s prediction was the most accurate. Better than LTP, PRR, the two ESPN Big Ten blog guys, and Stewart Mandel. LTP and PRR – keep trying.

    Also, the thing I may have been most impressed by during the Cal game is the way Trevor zips the ball; compare to Heisman touted Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville.

    • birdofpreydavide

      Trevor has a great arm. He can throw an out pattern to the sideline on a frozen rope. On a few passes, his footwork was off — he threw off his back foot and didn’t properly step into his throws.

      If he corrects those flaws, he has the physical tools to make it to the next level. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a mid-round draft pick in 2015.

    • LTP

      The kid is money. He is closest every week. Need to do a post on his picks against the actual. It’s downright insane.

  • DT

    Brock Huard is a tool and PAC-12 shill, period.. If one is looking for textbook examples of real life ‘Targeting”, reference the hit of Oregon DB, Howard on a sliding and defenseless Nicholls State QB at Eugene over the weekend.. Up by 24 points no less… Maybe much like Dykes of The PAC-12– Helfrich and Aliotti at Oregon did not get the memo on that violation quite yet either seemingly.. Then again, Oregon did play NSU in the afternoon.. Sporting of them to provide that window to the fledgling FCS school..
    In terms of McCain, the PAC-12 should suspend him on the basis of his no class grandstanding playing to the approving Cal fans post his ejection.. Maybe, Larry Scott and The PAC-12 think Neil Lomax is still The QB at Portland State who Cal plays next.. Another PAC-12 loss to the Big Sky Conference this weekend would not help the perception and spin the former Tennis Marketer is attempting for “The Conference Of Champions”…

    • cece

      always good to hear from DT!

  • Catatonic Joe

    This is a day or two late and off the current topic, but I am slow on the uptake and never played football, so I’m still figuring this out. On the issue of “fake” injuries: If a player is facing Sonny Dyke’s team and gets a minor injury, what choices does he have? For example, a linebacker slightly twists his ankle. Just a tweak, but he won’t be able to run full speed until he walks it off on the sideline. Choice 1: stay in and run at half speed; watch the ball carrier you couldn’t get reach score a touchdown. Choice 2: wave frantically to the sideline for another player to come in and spell you. But you can’t hobble all the way off the field in the next 8 seconds and NU gets flagged for 12 men on the field. Choice 3: same scenario, but the replacement player waits on the sideline and the ball gets snapped with only 10 defenders in the play. Scenario 4: sit your butt down and make sure the ref will let your replacement come in as you are walked off the field. Sitting down for a MINOR injury, but not FAKE injury, is not stalling. It is just the only way a defender can ensure that there are 11 defenders when Cal snaps the ball. Looking at it this way, it seems to me that Sonny Dyke was the coach trying to take advantage of the system. By snapping the ball before an injured player is replaced, he is hoping to get the equivalent of a hockey power play. I think the NU plan (if that is what it was) made perfect sense.

    • Next Cat

      CatJoe, you’re right on the mark here. I’ve played — not at this level but enough to understand that it’s fairly common on defense after a play where you’re hit hard, have an awkward body movement, or feel cramps coming on that you don’t INSTANTLY know if you’ll be 100% in time for the next play. If you’re playing against a normal-speed / huddle-up offense, you have a moment to take stock and decide if you need to tap the top your helmet to signal your back-up. Against a hurry-up, there’s no time for that at all. If you think you might not fully recover in the next few seconds, you have no choice but to take a knee. Doing anything else is both unsafe and hurts your team. Having kids stay in the game to play when they’re not yet completely sure they’re physically OK is how minor injuries or even the possibility of minor injuries become major injuries. The question for Dykes & Cal fans is what would they instruct THEIR players to do in this situation?

  • calling all toasters

    Y’know, normally I root for the teams we’ve played to do well the rest of the season (for the obvious reason). With Cal I’m going to take a pass. And I certainly hope we don’t schedule them after next year.