COLUMBIA, Mo. — In the second week of the college football season, the brand-new, beefed-up targeting penalty touched down in Columbia.
Rarely does a referee’s little yellow flag cause such a commotion.
But it was really just a matter of time.
Here’s what the hard lesson given to Missouri linebacker Andrew Wilson taught us all: Safer football is coming whether we like it or not. And whether you’re a coach, a player or just a casual observer of the sport, getting used to this is going to take some time.
Targeting — basically hitting a defenseless player in the head — has been a penalty for five seasons. But new for 2013 is the NCAA’s decision that an immediate ejection and a half-game suspension will also be issued to the player who hits too high and too hard. What used to be a forgettable 15-yard mistake can now change a game, potentially a season.
Sure, we all agree the most egregious hits should be eliminated. But we don’t seem close to reaching an agreement on what crosses the invisible line. And we don’t seem to trust the referees to tell the difference, either.
This is why Wilson’s hit on Toledo receiver Bernard Reedy was discussed as much as the Tigers’ 38-23 win.
It wasn’t long ago that a hit like that — Wilson drilled Reedy up around the shoulders and appeared to follow up and through with his forearms — would have landed the linebacker a heap of praise. Saturday, it got him an early exit and, because it came after halftime, two quarters on the bench when Missouri plays Indiana after its bye week.
Even the people on the field when it happened couldn’t agree on a verdict.
“I definitely saw it,” Missouri safety Matt White said. “It kind of looked like he hit him up high.”
“From what I saw, it was clean,” Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy said.
“If they (the referees) have the decency to review the play, they will see it wasn’t targeting,” Ealy continued. “It wasn’t the crown of the helmet. And they probably will reinstate him. That’s what we’re hoping for.”
Officials did review the play, as they do every targeting penalty. The call was not reversed and an appeal is not an option. We will just have to wonder what Wilson, the first Missouri player to be penalized under the revamped rule, thinks about this.
But here’s a hint: Missouri declined to make Wilson available for interviews because it feared he might say something that could make a half-game suspension much longer.
Somewhere between White and Wilson sat coach Gary Pinkel, who didn’t necessarily agree with the referee’s decision, but didn’t necessarily argue with it.
“The bottom line is, you can’t hit above the shoulders,” he said. “You can’t hit near the shoulders, or up there. You can’t do it. He’s on my team. He’s a great kid. He would never try to hurt anybody. But we’ve got to protect the game. We’ve got to protect the kids.”
The Associated Press reported 10 targeting penalties were handed out last week. Wilson’s surely wasn’t the only one in week two. And there will be more next week and so on.
The learning process will be slow and frustrating at times. Yet even while we might disagree on what kind of hit deserves a penalty, keeping kids safe seems smart.
“Really, I think the targeting rule really a good rule,” Ealy said. “It’s kind of protecting both sides.”
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at email@example.com.