Targeting rule is a noble cause, but hard to officiate and to guard against

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Amani Jones looks to make a tackle against Minnesota. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Football in its most basic form comes down to tackling the person with the ball.

That hasn't change since the game was invented, but the rules regarding tackling have changed dramatically over the past decade for safety reasons.

Iowa linebacker Amani Jones was reminded of that when he was ejected for targeting late in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s 48-31 victory at Minnesota.

By rule, Jones now has to sit out the first half of this coming Saturday’s game at Indiana, leaving Iowa with little depth at middle linebacker.

You can argue whether the officials over-reacted or missed the call all together, but what’s the point?

The call already has been made and there is no turning back or a way to protest the call.

And it’s hard to criticize a rule that is intended to make a violent game safer for those who play it.

What you hope for is consistency in how and when the rule is enforced, but that’s hard because officials are human and they’re dealing with a rule that is so subjective and open for interpretation.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was asked about Jones’ ejection at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. Ferentz mentioned that he saw a Michigan State receiver get hit in a similar way that Jones hit the Minnesota receiver, but there was no call for targeting in the Michigan State game.

“So it's a really tough play to officiate,” Ferentz said. “I think there's a lot of interpretation in there. It's all about player safety, which I think everybody supports, and coaches and players alike, but there are tough things about the play.

“One thing I do know, if your eyes are down, that increases the chance of a targeting call being issued out there. If you hit and strike with your helmet, that increases it, and if you're up in that head and neck area, certainly that increases it, too.”

The targeting rule was implemented as a way to protect against head injuries in this age of heightened awareness about the long-term effects from concussions.

It came in response to research that shows that football players are susceptible to brain diseases such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative brain disease that is found in those with a history of repetitive brain trauma.

Former Iowa defensive back Tyler Sash was found to have CTE after his brain was examined following his accidental death from a drug overdose in 2015.

Jones appears to have led with his shoulder rather than his helmet, but was still called for targeting, probably because the receiver was considered defenseless and because Jones hit him way above the waist.

Ferentz was asked Tuesday if defenders now have to hit below the waist to avoid being called for targeting.

“I think you can get a call for that, too, if you're hitting on a guy's knees,” Ferentz said. “That's quarterbacks. But it's getting tougher. It just gets tougher every year.

“It's a bang-bang thing.”

Ferentz said he appreciates that targeting penalties are now being reviewed, but that still didn’t help Jones this past Saturday.

“It kind of looked like it was more like a shoulder pad, and I thought Amani was trying to get out of the way, but maybe as much as anything it was a really loud hit,” Ferentz said. “If you were at the stadium, it sounded like a shotgun going off, pads hitting pads really. I mean, everybody was on the same page out there. I've never seen so many flags on one play, so everybody was on the same page there.

“It's unfortunate. Luckily their guy jumped right up, as did Amani, and nobody was hurt, and that's the biggest thing. We'll live with it. It's just part of football this day and age.”

Iowa defensive back Jake Gervase said there was some discussion about the targeting rule after the Minnesota game.

“The coaches touched on it,” Gervase said. “I don’t want to say we disagreed with the call, but if I was Amani out there, I don’t know what he could have changed. I thought he led with his shoulder. It was just a really hard and violent hit.

“You know, football is a violent and aggressive game. But the refs saw it, they made the call and stuck with it. So we just need to do a good job of staying within the guidelines and staying within the rules and make sure we’re not leading with our head.”

Gervase said the targeting rule now forces players to be aggressive and smart at the same time.

“You got be smart and go fast,” Gervase said. “Anytime you hesitate, that’s when guys end up getting hurt and you end up making mistakes.

“But at the same time, you’ve just got to be smart and lead with your shoulder and not your head and try to make a play. It’s tough to see on that specific play, but we’ve just got to learn as a defense.”

It wasn’t that long ago when vicious hits in football were highlighted and admired.

But now they often lead to a penalty or worse.

“It’s hard,” Gervase said. “(Amani) was just trying to make a play. The refs saw it and they made the call. They stuck with it. You can’t really do much about it. You just have to hope it doesn’t happen again.”

Iowa tight end Noah Fant and running back Ivory Kelly-Martin both are questionable for the Indiana game on Saturday due to head injuries.

Fant walked slowly off the field after running a sweep and didn’t return. His head slammed against the turf as he was tackled.

Ferentz said Fant and Kelly-Martin are now both in concussion protocol.

“They both came out of the game. I think the whole world saw that,’ Ferentz said. “Right now, we'll see where it goes. I think we'll probably know more by Friday.”