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Sunday Morning Hangover: Targeting Calls Are Out of Control

A sketchy targeting call on Arkansas cost them the game against LSU.

In 2013 season, the NCAA introduced the new “targeting” rule. Although it has been seven years and the rule has taken on much tweaking, officials are still far from perfecting the call.

In Saturday’s Arkansas-LSU game, Razorbacks defender Jalen Catalon was flagged and ejected at a key moment of the game that led to the Tigers’ game winning score. In addition to it being a bad call, the replay official did not fix the error while millions of viewers at home could clearly see the tackle did not fill the criteria of targeting.

To set the stage, the LSU offense had fallen stone cold since halftime as they struggled to get past the 50. Their first four possessions of the second half had all resulted in punts. Arkansas led 24-20 and had momentum securely on their side. The Tigers had the ball on 2nd & 10 at their own 33 with roughly seven minutes to play when TJ Finley connects with Kayshon Boutte for 15 yard reception to reach their own 48. The receiver takes a hard hit and the flags come flying. The problem is, that is all it was: a hard hit.

If you want to see the whole thing in regular time, start the video at the 2-hour mark:

Below are the rules as described by

Targeting does not solely occur when players initiate helmet-to-helmet contact. It’s defined as occurring when a player “takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball.” Instances include, but are not limited to:

Launch—a player leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make forcible contact in the head or neck area.

A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area, even though one or both feet are still on the ground.

Leading with helmet, shoulder forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area.

Lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of his helmet.

Did you see Catalon break any of the rules? The runner was not defenseless. Catalon did not launch or lower his helmet. It was just a rough collision. It’s football. These things happen.

It is all open to conjecture but the real debate was succinctly put by play-by-play man Matt Stinchcomb: “I don’t know what else a defender can do right there?”

When you were a kid, did you ever have a sibling or classmate who faked like he was going to punch you? What did you do? You flinched, right? You squint your eyes, lowered your head, raised a shoulder, and drew your arms in close to your body. It’s an uncontrollable human instinct to protect oneself. (For a more scientific discussion, watch the video below.)

So, the question remains: “What are these guys supposed to do?” Was Catalon supposed to stand perfectly erect, raise his arms to the side and let ball carrier hit him flat-chested?

There was another targeting call on Saturday in a different game that was showed in super-slo-mo. Just before the collision, the defender slightly dipped his head which could be nothing more than a defense mechanism, to which the announcers said “oh yeah. You can see him lower his helmet.” We at home (and in the announcers’ booth) have the luxury of watching replays in slow motion. On the field, players often have a fraction a second to react. Lowering one’s head at the last moment is not an intent to harm. It’s a natural reflex. If players do not lower their heads when tackling, there will be an epidemic of neck injuries because heads will be snapped backwards at alarming rates. At some point, officials need to take such things into account when reaching for their flags or watching replays.

The truth is, head coaches deserve official on-field explanations. Not Monday morning tweets when they have time to craft and spin their responses.

The impact on the call against Catlon was huge. Arkansas lost their best safety in crunch time and LSU got an additional 15 yards moving them all the way to the Razorbacks’ 36 yard line. The Tigers would go on to score the game winning points.

For his part, the Arkansas AD is incensed and plans on taking his argument to the SEC. We’ll see if anything changes.