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Football: What is targeting, really?

The Lantern
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Junior wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. takes a pause on the field to get ready for play. Credit: Lily Hynes | Assistant Photo Editor

Many Ohio State fans may remember the 2020 College Football Playoff against Clemson when former Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields led the team to a 49-28 win.

However, even more remarkable than the victory was the fact that Fields helped lead the Buckeyes to it after suffering a serious hit in the second quarter that was ruled targeting on Tiger linebacker James Skalski.

While few fans could argue this particular flag, it is often controversial when a targeting penalty is called and the reason for the call is ––– more times than not ––– not cut and dry. The 2019 NCAA rulebook defines targeting as “aiming at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or legal block or playing the ball.”

When deciding whether or not to throw the flag, the referees have to consider if the player who was targeted was defenseless and if the opposing player led with the crown of their helmet to an area above the shoulders, which can be very hard to spot in a game as fast as football.

To try and make this more easily recognizable, the NCAA rulebook also gives multiple indications of targeting and examples of a defenseless player available here .

Even with all the attempts to improve the targeting flag, many coaches, players and fans still believe it is flawed.

Ohio State football head coach Ryan Day pointed out his thoughts on targeting with Joel Klatt July 10 on his show, Big Noon Conversations.

“If someone is launching at someone’s head and they’re unconscious on the ground, that’s not what we want here,” Day said. “Sometimes we get into these slow-motion things, and we get so caught up in the little details. It’s not realistic, sometimes, watching it in slow motion. I think there has to be common sense.”

Day said the NCAA could reduce this problem by placing more trust in the referees.

“I think we have to trust the referees on the field and what they see — they are there for a reason, Day said. “If it’s egregious one way or the other, then that’s where instant replay comes into play. But I think right now [what] we’ve done is, we’ve just put so much into the instant replay that what you see in a slow frame isn’t really what’s going on in the field.”

Another idea proposed by ESPN’s Mike Greenberg on targeting is to make it more of a “flagrant foul rule king of philosophy.”

“I do not think you need to eject the player,” Greenberg said.

With the 2023 season underway, the Colorado versus Colorado State game saw a controversial targeting call where two-way player Travis Hunter received a violent hit that questionably did not receive a targeting penalty.

As more questionable plays are bound to happen, the NCAA will be forced to respond in some way in the future.

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