Softening the blow
In Ohio State’s game against Maryland in 2017, cornerback Denzel Ward leveled Terrapins receiver Taivon Jacobs.
The football came loose and Ward picked it up and would have scored if not for a referee’s whistle and penalty flag. Though Ward hit Jacobs in the chest with his shoulder, the official called Ward for targeting, and he was ejected after the referee said the ruling was confirmed.
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If the same play happens this year, the penalty and ejection would be retracted.
“Today, with the new rule, it would not be (targeting),” Big Ten coordinator of officials Bill Carollo told The Dispatch.
That’s because of a rules change effective this season that requires agreement between the referee and the replay official in the booth, with the replay official having the final decision.
In essence, it’s a shifting of the burden of proof. Until now, if a player was called for targeting and replay review was inconclusive, the call would stand.
“This year, all elements have to be confirmed,” Carollo said at Big Ten media days on Friday. “If not, the player stays in the game. Based on the numbers last year, we’ll have 10 percent, possibly, less targeting calls this year.”
The targeting rule — ejecting players for hits to the head or using their helmets to hit an opponent — was instituted in 2013 to improve player safety in light of increasing awareness of the dangers from concussions. But some players, like Ward, have been ejected for hits that haven’t fit that description.
“We want to get this play correct,” Carollo said. “It's a very important play as far as health and safety, but it's also the penalty (that) is our largest penalty, so we want to make sure that we get that correct, and if we aren't sure, the player will stay in the game. We had too many marginal calls, too many ticky-tack fouls, too many on the margin, just on the edge that, ‘Boy, they could have passed on that.’ We're going to get rid of that.”
Carollo said that the change will make it tougher on officials, but he said they are encouraged to throw a flag when they suspect targeting, knowing that it will reviewed.
“We tell the officials, ‘Throw the flag, (and) replay, your job (is) to fix it,’” he said.
But for those players for whom targeting is a chronic issue, the penalty has been strengthened. A player who commits a third targeting foul will be ejected from not only that game but the following one as well.
The targeting rule isn’t the only one that has been tweaked for 2019. Blind-side blocks in the open field also have been banned.
“You cannot, with force, attack an opponent and put a block on that player in open space,” Carollo said. “So you can't really de-cleat people. You have to make sure that player sees you, and he can defend himself. Otherwise it will be a (15-yard) penalty.”
Ohio State’s receivers have taken immense pride in their blocking in recent years, and that has included some de-cleaters — knocking players off their feet. Carollo said that to avoid being penalized, blockers should extend their hands as they make contact or simply act more as shields. He likened it to a basketball player setting an aggressive pick.
“If you push them, that's not attacking,” Carollo said. “It might not knock them over. Use your hands and you absorb it a little bit, right? All you have to do is set a pick, make them run around you, especially on a punt return coming down the field. All you have to do is deviate him a little bit. You don't even have to block them.”
Carollo acknowledged that many players and fans love the blind-side block, but that safety is paramount.
“The reality is that we get that out of the game,” he said. “If you see these plays — (people say,) ‘Well, it's just football’ — the reality is, do you want your player to get hit like that? So we're trying to get rid of it.”
In addition, wedge blocking on kickoffs has been banned. The three-man wedge was prohibited several years ago, but Carollo said that even two-man wedges have proven to be too dangerous. Violations will be a 15-yard penalty. The only exception to the rule is on onside kicks.
Another rules change is that the requirement that low blocks need to be initiated from the front now applies to defensive players as well as offensive players.
Also, if a game reaches a fifth overtime, each team will get one snap from the opponent’s 3-yard line to score instead of continuing to start possessions from the 25.