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 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.