The T Word

By Ramzy Nasrallah on August 2, 2018 at 7:05 pm
Oct 7, 2017; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Denzel Ward (12) lays the hit on Maryland Terrapins wide receiver Taivon Jacobs (12) which jarred the ball loose and got Ward ejected during the first half at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
© Joe Maiorana | USAT Sports

Ohio State's best individual effort of 2017 was erased by an officiating error.

When you win the conference, sweep the division, dance in Ann Arbor, hand Wisconsin its only L of the season in Indy and then suffocate the Pac 12 champions in the Rose Cotton Bowl, the highlights are bound to be plentiful. But in 2017 there was one perfect play that stood above all of the great ones in terms of individual prowess, execution, broadcast quality and outcome. And it didn't count.

It took place during the Maryland game when Denzel Ward separated Taivon Jacobs from the ball that had been in his possession. He snatched it off the turf and galloped toward the end zone; a forced turnover, recovery and touchdown, courtesy of one player.

If football had an unassisted triple play, this would be it. As a bonus, Ward was graced with the Gus Johnson Experience™ for his efforts:

Lost in the officiating larceny and Johnson's enthusiastic barbecue inquiry were color analyst Joel Klatt's perfect comments around the targeting rule, which has been a well-intentioned but severely flawed policy since its inception:

[KLATT] The word "incidental" is not in the rule book...I think that on this play Denzel Ward is trying to lower the strike zone...he did not launch upward, he did not use the crown.

[JOHNSON] That should not be a targeting call.

[KLATT] They've got to figure out this rule...he's done everything they've asked him to do. He put his head to the side, they put his shoulder to the chest...he had no intention of going high...if you want to create a second category of targeting, this at most would be incidental...that should not be an ejection. He did everything he was taught to do to stay in the game and he is still heading to the locker room.

The replay booth disagreed with Klatt and Johnson, as well as every sober, drunk, living or dead person who saw the play from every possible angle and speed. Two days later the Big Ten, which doesn't apologize for anything, sheepishly apologized for using its replay assets to be so stupid. Guys. You literally had one job.

Ohio State didn't need Ward to beat the crap out of Maryland, nor did it need Damon Arnette who was ejected later in the game for precisely the type of hit every level of football is trying to eradicate to preserve both the game and its participants. The Buckeyes didn't need Arnette during the 1st half of the Nebraska game a week later either, a 35-0 30-minute laugher which he missed on account of being penalized during the 2nd half the previous week.

But they did need Nick Bosa against the Hawkeyes, and he was ejected with the game tied at 17 and Ohio State forcing a 4th down. They lost their best player, Iowa kept the ball and two hours later the game ended on a 38-7 run for the home team. That single penalty, entirely deserved, was the Jenga block that brought Ohio State's playoff hopes crashing down.

Nick Bosa exits the Iowa game, 2017

Targeting should be uncontroversial but for the humans who interpret its definition. Helmet-to-helmet, launching, defenselessness - we have the technology and we don't even need it. If you have football eyes it's quite easy to delineate the clean and currently-legal hits from ones that are illegal or unnecessarily violent. As the definitions evolve, those eyes will adjust. Ward was seemingly penalized because of the physics involved with Jacobs pinwheeling, which is not included anywhere in the definition of targeting.

But there are two main issues that are not going to go away. One is that holding, pass interference and illegal motion weren't installed - with great urgency - into football to reduce head trauma the way targeting was. It is tone deaf to be dismissive to the most important adjustment the sport has made for its survival since Teddy Roosevelt saved it from a different type of violence a century ago.

Targeting is not treated like a penalty. It's punished like a crime.

Two is that targeting is such a punitive penalty with implications extending far beyond the yardage involved. Ward and Arnette had to literally leave the stadium during Homecoming. That's the same punishment a fan gets for pouring a beer on a nun's head or stealing a hot dog from concessions.

It's not treated like any other penalty outside of brawling. The punishment is the same as for committing an actual stadium crime, which makes targeting more of a crime than a penalty. Ohio State specifically made it a point to avoid targeting penalties in 2017 and still ended up accounting for a fifth of ejections in the B1G. It would take significant analysis to see if it commits more targeting-worthy hits (you feel like watching All-22 film of every game to look for targeting?) but it's easy to see the whistles are wildly variable across college football.

Look at the numbers across the Power 5 from last season, where Ohio State was called for targeting by itself only one fewer time than the entire ACC (Terry McLaurin was flagged but not ejected for a legal block against Rutgers, and Dre'Mont Jones took two steps before hitting Brian Lewerke in a textbook case of the rule's Defenseless Player clause). 

The Pac 12 had 500% more ejections for the breaking same rule than the ACC did. We have no idea what equilibrium is supposed to look like in the era where a player can accidentally be kicked out of a game because whoops, our bad, just trying to reduce head trauma. We have every idea of what might happen to the sport if it continues to build a correlation with traumatic brain injuries.

PAC 12 30
SEC 27
B1G 20 (OSU: 4)

From Bradley Roby against Iowa in 2013 to Corey Smith in Ohio State's 59-0 pasting of Wisconsin in Indianapolis and through the 2017 Season of Targeting, we've installed Zapruder-like scrutiny to helmet location, intention diagnosis and interpretation, player helplessness, hit trajectory, the wind's direction, Nabisco's stock price - we have been applying the same Beyond a Reasonable Doubtedness required for murder convictions to Buckeyes whistled for targeting, because we've seen the wrongful and dubious convictions and we're done with them.

But more importantly, we've seen the correct ones and their consequences. It would be fun and probably agonizing to see what might have happened that afternoon had the entire team been insulated from the visceral deflation that accompanied Bosa's ejection. The Buckeyes have had a problem with penalties in general recently. Most of the penalties are correct and self-inflicted.

Perhaps in 2018 Ohio State will effectively put a premium on preventing its best highlights from being erased with cause. Let's just hope the replay booth matches their effort.

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