Heartbeat of the Heartland: Big 12 Sounds Off on The Targeting Rule

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When he heard the question on Monday’s Big 12 coaches teleconference, Texas coach Tom Herman reacted like someone standing barefoot in a puddle of water asked to pick up a downed power line.

Herman was asked his thoughts about college football’s targeting rule. He called it a “hot button topic.” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy were also asked about the controversial rule. Before getting to those answers, Your Veteran Scribe would like to take the opportunity to climb top his rickety soap box and blast an opinion.

Through the first three weeks of this season, there was a 73 percent increase in targeting calls. That statistically backs up my observations. In the fourth season of the rule, there’s no doubt that officiating crews and Big Brother Replay are policing big hits like never before.

The NCAA party line on all this is “player safety.” I say it’s more like what Bevo leaves for his handlers to shovel.

Not to go all conspiracy theory here but I think the NCAA is playing CYA. With the recent findings regarding brain injuries in NFL players, there’s a reasonably good chance that the NCAA or one of the Power Five conferences/schools will find itself in court defending itself against a plaintiff who will claim negligence.

“But we realized what was happening and we changed the rules. We tried to stop the helmet to helmet hits. Look at all these players who were ejected.”

The pendulum theory is in full effect. Since 2013, the targeting rule has been allowed to swing too far in its punishment phase and application. The targeting rule has been tweaked to allow instant replay reviews to overturn the split-second calls officials have to make on the field. Those reviews too often fail to change calls that need to be changed.

And there are a number of coaches who aren’t pleased. Their players aren’t being coached to be head hunters but they are taught to, you know, play football.

“The problem to me with targeting is the officials have been instructed if anything is even close to targeting, even if they don’t really totally think it is a foul, but if it’s even close, they want to go ahead and throw the flag so it can get reviewed,” Sooners coach Lincoln Riley said. “But then within the review system, we review it like every other play.

“I think for such a strong penalty, it should be clear-cut, 100 percent confirmed up top before we’re going to throw somebody out of the game.”

Against Tulane, OU freshman CeeDee Lamb was ejected for a block where his shoulder hit the Tulane player, who didn’t see Lamb before contact, in the chest.

The replay review didn’t appear to support one of the targeting tenets – leading with the crown of the helmet and “forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent.”

Kansas State’s Cre Moore was ejected in the first half of Saturday’s game with Baylor. There was no flag thrown when he came in to help on a tackle where the ball carrier’s “target” changed when he was being brought down. Moore appeared to make minimal contact. A replay review decided it was targeting. Moore was subjected to the walk of shame to the K-State locker room.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to coach defense in football,” Herman said. “We’re dealing in milliseconds of differentiality in time and space. As a defender, when I make the decision to uncoil my hips to make a tackle and I’m targeting a safe area on the ball carrier and in the next split millisecond the ball carrier changes his body position, I can’t change.”

That’s exactly the type of assessment one would expect from a Mensa member. It’s physics. It appears the middle-aged to old men making the rules expect a full stop from a player moving at full speed toward a collision with a “victim” also moving at full speed.

“I’m not sure anymore how they call and I’m not sure anymore what the rules are,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “I saw last week a runner was running and dove to the ground and the tackler made contact about a foot off the ground and they called the defensive guy for targeting. I don’t know what you tell a defensive guy.

“The problem with the review system of targeting calls is that there’s no consistency. Not everybody who reviews understands what targeting is. You have human opinions and there’s room for error. I don’t know whose fault it is but it needs to be fixed.”

Every spring, conferences have meetings where coaches and administrators gather, typically at a swanky resort. The officiating supervisors – who are employed by the conferences and enforce the rules implemented by the NCAA rules committee – will likely get a lot of heat from coaches who are unhappy about how targeting is called and the ejections that come with the flag.

If you think coaches will get their way on a topic like this, you’re likely to also believe there is no cheating in college basketball recruiting.

Still Running on Empty

An inexperienced offensive line that lacks depth plus running backs who are indifferent when it comes to breaking tackles have Texas’ running game stuck in neutral.

Heading into Saturday’s game with Kansas State, which leads the Big 12 in total defense, the Longhorns are sixth in rushing offense. But instead of being close to the middle of the pack, a look behind the numbers shows how Texas is struggling.

In the second game of the season, the Longhorns gained 406 yards on 59 carries against San Jose State. Remove that game from the stats and UT is averaging 102 yards in the other three games and a paltry 2.6 yards per carry.

“We’re not making very many people miss,” Herman said. “If it’s blocked for four, we’re gonna make four. If it’s blocked for six, we get six. With great backs, if it’s blocked for four they give you eight. We’ve addressed that. When you don’t run it well everybody wants to throw the offensive line under the bus but it’s a collective deal.”

Joel Lanning, Revisited

If you’re a loyal reader – and if you’re not, you should be – you might remember the story from July regarding Iowa State’s Joel Lanning.

A starting quarterback last season, he switched to linebacker during spring practice. Cyclones coach Matt Campbell declared during Big 12 media days that if the team had a game the next day, Lanning would start at middle linebacker.

Turns out Lanning is a stud. In Iowa State’s 17-7 loss to Texas last Thursday, Lanning finished with 20 tackles. He’s second in the Big 12 in tackles per game. And pro scouts are starting to take notice. The Des Moines Register spoke to a scout after the game.

“He’s very good, too,” the scout said. “Dominating. Aware. Instinctive. Quick. Good lateral movement. Second-best guy out there.”

Lanning had not played defense since eighth grade but Campbell asked him to move to linebacker during the offseason. Quarterback Jacob Park had proven he could run the offense and the Iowa State coach thought it was a wasted to have a player with Lanning’s talent on the sideline holding a clipboard.

“If you’re talking about (Lanning) going into year two or year three as a linebacker, I think you’re probably talking about a high draft pick type of player,” Campbell said. “He’s working himself into that conversation anyway right now.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the development he’s making. He’s playing at a high level.”

Short Yardage

• Kansas State coach Bill Snyder is 21-0 when he coaches against first-year Big 12 coaches. He extended that record with Saturday’s victory over Baylor and Matt Ruhle. This Saturday Snyder and the Wildcats will face first-year Texas coach Tom Herman. It was also be Snyder’s 78th birthday.

• There’s bad luck and then there’s Baylor luck. The Bears lost punter Drew Galitz for the season during Saturday’s game with Kansas State when he suffered a non-contact knee injury … during a kickoff. Kicker Connor Martin stepped in and averaged 42 yards on three punts plus gained 16 yards on a faked punt.

• Texas junior All-American tackle Connor Williams will not have knee surgery for his medial collateral ligament. There’s a chance he could return to the field before the end of the season. Also, sophomore quarterback Shane Buechele is expected to start against K-State despite suffering a sprained ankle in the last game. He has been wearing a walking boot but for protection and practiced Sunday wearing a heavy brace.

• Texas has held its last three opponents to less than 100 yards rushing. The last time the Longhorns had a three-game stretch like that came in 2010. Over those three games, UT opponents are averaging 1.6 yards per attempt.

• In 2012, the year that TCU joined the Big 12, a $164 million renovation of Amon Carter Stadium was completed. Last week, the school sent season ticket holders a survey to gauge their interest in adding suites and club seating on the stadium’s east side. During the renovation, 24 suits and approximately 2,500 club seats were included on the west side.

• Unlike recent years, wakeup calls for Texas and Oklahoma fans won’t be needed for the annual Red River Rivalry in Dallas. The Big 12 announced Monday the game, which has had what seems to have been a perpetual 11 a.m. CST kickoff, will kick at 2:30 p.m. CT on Oct. 14. That means fans will have more time to enjoy adult beverages and corny dogs at the State Fair which is in session just outside the Cotton Bowl’s gates.