Chadd Cripe

Targeting calls are up 40 percent in college football this season — and that’s a good thing

Targeting penalty was a learning experience for Boise State DE Chase Hatada

Boise State defensive end Chase Hatada discusses the defensive line rotation, facing Utah State and the targeting penalty he got last month.
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Boise State defensive end Chase Hatada discusses the defensive line rotation, facing Utah State and the targeting penalty he got last month.

The scene repeats every Saturday across college football.

A player uses his helmet as a weapon, or drills a defenseless player above the shoulders, and a flag comes out for targeting. While the replay official reviews the call, the TV announcers debate the intricacies of the play and whether a penalty should have been called. The debate often comes down to a split second of timing, or a helmet making contact an inch this way or that.

It’s all very technical.

Greg Burks, the Mountain West coordinator of football officials, prefers a simpler explanation.

“The simplest thing for me is, ‘Is that a hit that we want in the game?’ ” Burks said. “That’s what this is all about.”

And there isn’t anything more important for college football to get right. Youth football participation has plummeted. Concerns about CTE and other brain injuries have soared.

For football to survive, it must reduce unnecessarily dangerous hits.

“It’s important for the game,” Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “For a while there, we got away with a little bit too much of trying to get ourselves on YouTube. The game lost a little bit of fundamentals. ... We’re going to play fast and physical. It’s just about playing smart.”

Targeting calls have spiked more than 40 percent this season as officials have increased the emphasis on, and efficiency of, calling those penalties from the replay booth when they’re missed on the field.

Nationwide, 123 targeting penalties were upheld in the first eight weeks of the season, including seven in the Mountain West.

Last year, there were 144 targeting penalties for the entire season — with eight in the Mountain West.

As of two weeks ago, targeting penalties were trending 44.4 percent ahead of last season.

Targeting penalties, which are called when players hit defenseless opponents above the shoulders or anyone with the crown of their helmet, were first approved in 2008. The rule has evolved to include replay review, which gives the replay official the ability to remove the penalty. Last year, the replay official was given authority to call a targeting penalty that was missed on the field — and that power has been used more this year.

“We’re much better at it now,” Burks said.

Officials are told to call targeting if they think they saw it happen, Burks said, because of the emphasis on player safety and the ability to overturn the penalty on review. For most other penalties, they’re told to throw a flag only if they’re sure.

The penalty is harsh: 15 yards, an ejection for the offender and a suspension for the first half of the next game if the foul occurs in the second half.

And while many observers get frustrated by the flags, Burks and Boise State coaches say the targeting rule is altering the game in the intended way.

“It absolutely has changed the game,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “Everybody is aware of it. Everybody is trying to coach it so it’s done the right way. ... Are we keeping guys safe? Are guys tackling the right way? I think that’s happening.”

Boise State sophomore defensive lineman Chase Hatada was flagged for targeting Sept. 14 against New Mexico after he hit the Lobos’ quarterback high. He called that moment “a huge learning experience.”

“(The rule) really helps people learn their lesson, lower their target zone on hitting,” he said. “Coaches all around the nation are doing a good job of teaching it. It’s just when you’re out there, it’s bang-bang.”

Burks is sympathetic. He’s “so impressed by the kids,” who have to make decisions at game speed while hyped enough to be willing to put their bodies on the line. He gives coaches a couple of tips: Teach players to keep their heads up, which avoids targeting with the crown of the helmet, and don’t hit players who are falling to the ground.

“The key difference in our game compared to the NFL is when the runner is down, he’s down,” Burks said. “As a defender, you’ve got to recognize that a player is going to the ground. I don’t need to hit him. If you think of that in the context of football, that’s a big change. We’ve been on the other side of, we have to punish our opponent. There’s some pushback on that, and I understand that.”

And the winner is ...

Boise State (5-2) has played its best football on the road, where it has led by at least 17 points in the fourth quarter in every contest.

“This team likes being on the road,” Harsin said. “Not every team is like that.”

The Broncos hit the road again this week for Saturday’s game at Utah State (4-4), where they lost two years ago. The Aggies have some offensive firepower but rank 104th in rushing defense, which creates a difficult matchup with Boise State’s run-first offense. They’ll also rely on an inexperienced quarterback — another bad matchup with Boise State’s imposing defense.

Barring a rash of turnovers, the Broncos should prevail.

Boise State 27, Utah State 16

College football spotlight

National game of the week — No. 2 Penn State at No. 6 Ohio State (-6.5), 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Fox: The Nittany Lions don’t have a win over a currently ranked team. Neither do the Buckeyes. Ohio State 17, Penn State 16

Pac-12 game of the week — No. 15 Washington State (-2.5) at Arizona, 7:30 p.m., Pac-12: The stakes for the Cougars: “College GameDay” likely finally goes to Pullman if they win. Arizona 37, Washington State 31

Mountain West game of the week — Air Force at Colorado State (-10), 1 p.m., CBS Sports Network: Mountain Division-leading Rams have beaten Nevada and New Mexico by a combined five points in past two games. Colorado State 34, Air Force 31

NFL spotlight

On TV: Bears at Saints (11 a.m. Sunday, Fox), Texans at Seahawks (2 p.m., CBS), Cowboys at Redskins (2:25 p.m., Fox), Steelers at Lions (6:20 p.m., NBC), Broncos at Chiefs (6:15 p.m. Monday, ESPN).

Broncos in the NFL: Former Boise State defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence ranks second in the NFL with 9.5 sacks this season. He’ll be in the spotlight Sunday in Fox’s premier game, with his Cowboys at the Redskins. Lawrence is only a half-sack out of the NFL lead.

Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at ccripe@idahostatesman.com, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.

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