Targeting has been a major focus of media and fans in the first few weeks of the 2021 college football season. It sped to the forefront when four targeting fouls were confirmed during the Monday night contest between Ole Miss and Louisiana in Week 1. In the Week 2 matchup between USC and Stanford, USC’s kicker was disqualified on the opening kickoff for committing a targeting foul on the Stanford return player. Also in Week 2, an Oregon linebacker appeared to target an Ohio State receiver, but replay did not create a targeting foul.
Steve Shaw is the national coordinator of football officials and the NCAA football secretary–rules editor. He releases a media tape each week to help instruct viewers how to interpret certain plays in light of the correct rules, mechanics, and philosophies. In his tape after Week 1, Shaw reminded fans and the media that the quantity of targeting fouls seen in the Ole Miss game was not representative of the majority of NCAA games. In 2020, the NCAA averaged 0.268 targeting fouls, meaning only about one in every four games had a targeting foul. This game was obviously an outlier, and as Fox Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira put it when citing the same statistic, “This is not an epidemic.”
Targeting is a foul that replay is heavily involved in. If there is a targeting foul called on the field, the game is automatically stopped for an official replay review. If there is not a targeting foul called on the field but replay determines that it should have been, a foul can be created by replay.
Dean Blandino, the national replay coordinator, consistently emphasizes the role of processes in officiating. Replay officials, as well as on-field officials, need to understand the process and apply it consistently. While certain aspects of the targeting foul require judgment, Blandino preaches that if the process is followed, officials will reach conclusions that are consistent nationally.
In the language of the rule, the NCAA specifies two categories of targeting. These categories are referred to by officials using their rule references, 9-1-3, and 9-1-4:
9-1-3 — No player shall target and make forcible contact against an opponent with the crown of their helmet.
9-1-4 — No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow, or shoulder.
Both of these categories require an “indicator” of targeting. The rulebook includes a list of examples of indicators that is not exhaustive, but includes a launch, a crouch followed by an upward thrust, leading with the helmet or shoulder, or lowering the head. Each of these indicators comes with the clarification that these actions come before the player “attacks” using “forcible contact.”
The first determination in the officiating process revolves around whether or not the player receiving the hit was defenseless. If the answer is yes, then officials begin looking for an indicator, then forcible contact to the head or neck area. If they are deemed not to be defenseless, that leaves only the crown of the helmet variety, and officials again identify an indicator and forcible contact; but this time, they also need to ensure that the forcible contact was made using the crown of the helmet. If the player is not defenseless, it does not matter where the contact is made on the player receiving the hit — only that the contact was initiated using the crown of the helmet.
The 9-1-3 targeting variety using crown of the helmet was the focus of the hit with about 6 minutes remaining in the Ohio State vs. Oregon game in Week 2 Oregon linebacker Noah Sewell laid a hit on Ohio State receiver Chris Olave after a 2-yard completion.
Replay officials are constantly playing footage and looking at views throughout the game. If the next snap is not imminent and they can look at the most helpful angles quickly enough, rulings can often be confirmed without an official stoppage. With both players being down, this gave replay enough time to look at all the angles that they deemed necessary and make a determination. They got word to Fox Sports that they had looked at the footage and determined that there was no foul for targeting on this play. They did not specify whether they determined that the contact was not forcible or that the contact was not made with the crown of the helmet.
During the broadcast, Pereira commented “to me, this is targeting.” In the week to follow, Shaw addressed this issue.
Shaw began both his media tape and his training tape to all NCAA officials by bringing out a helmet as a prop. He pointed out the area deemed the “crown”: just above the facemask and around the entire circumference of the helmet.
While Shaw did not bring up the Oregon hit in his media tape, he did show that play in his training tape to NCAA officials. He pointed out the indicator of lowering the helmet, and a clear attack using the crown of his helmet into the back of the receiver. With the indicator and forcible contact using the crown of the helmet, Shaw said that this should have been a foul created by replay if it was not called by the officials on the field. The rules committee has been clear that this is the type of hit that they are trying to remove from the game. As we see, both players involved in the hit were injured, but the tackler himself was hurt the most using this technique.
At the NFL level, this was the cornerstone event of an ugly Monday Night Football contest between the Steelers and Bengals in 2017. Linebacker Ryan Shazier slumped to the turf after administering a head-first tackle, and spending a year trying to regain his mobility.
In the NCAA, some have advocated for a two-tiered approach to targeting: one that carries a disqualification, and another that enforces the 15-yard penalty but does not take the player out of the game. Pereira said he has suggested this before, but doesn’t see it coming to fruition.
“This isn’t practical,” he lamented in his commentary on Week 2 plays. “You can’t add another layer of judgment onto a play that already involves a lot of judgments.”
According to the leadership of college officiating — the rules committee, national coordinator, and national replay coordinator — the rule is accomplishing its goal of changing tackling technique and habits, reflected by the statistics of fouls and injuries. The solution is not to add layers of complexity to the judgment, but to be consistent in the process. If the process is consistent, the judgment will come.
The last piece of the puzzle is teaching viewers how to discern categories of targeting, and even to help a casual viewer follow the process that an on-field or replay official undergoes to determine if an action is targeting, or simply a “good, clean, football play.”