COLUMBIA — It was the right call, however unpopular to the fans in Athens, Georgia.
Missouri receiver Emanuel Hall ran down the sideline to haul in a pass from Drew Lock, and Georgia safety Dominick Sanders arrived right after the ball. Sanders heaved the full force of his 189 pounds at Hall’s head and neck, where Lock’s pass was about to fall into Hall’s hands.
The Tiger receiver spun out of bounds, and the ball flew out of his hands. Sanders rolled into the Missouri bench. Back judge John Wright flung his penalty marker 30 yards across the field, which prompted a chorus of boos from 92,000 rowdy Bulldogs fans.
The foul: targeting, or contact above the shoulders of a “defenseless player.” The consequences: 15 Missouri yards and an automatic ejection of Sanders.
That penalty is stiff enough, Missouri players and coaches said, that it’s changed the fundamentals of how defensive players attack offensive players.
“Honestly, at times in the game, I know there are situations where I’m thinking, ‘Is it OK for me to hit him? Should I hit him? Am I going low enough?’” Missouri safety Ian Simon said. “That weighs on a defensive player because you have to be so precise in the things that you do, and when it comes to tackling, it’s such a bam-bam thing most of the time.”
Hits to the head or neck areas of defenseless players have been banned since 2008 in an attempt to minimize head injuries. In 2013, the NCAA increased the penalty for such fouls to match the consequences for fighting, sending a strong statement to defensive players: Keep the game safe, or you won’t play.
“It’s a good rule, I think. It protects players,” Missouri linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. “But it’s a hard penalty to stay away from.”
Especially hard because it runs counter to the type of football many players initially learned. ESPN glorified the week’s biggest hits with a segment called “Jacked Up.”
“Growing up, I used to live for stuff like that,” Simon said. “You lived for seeing those kind of hits. But now that you know the residual effects for all that, it’s dangerous.”
Think about it this way, players said: Football is a fast game. And if someone on offense is going to make a play, a defender’s got to do what a defender’s got to do. There isn’t time to think about where or how to hit someone.
Missouri has drawn one targeting penalty this season when defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. shoved South Carolina quarterback Lorenzo Nunez to the ground after Nunez released the ball on Oct. 3.
“Sometimes it’s difficult because sometimes a guy is falling or leaning,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “There are extenuating circumstances, but the bottom line is, the lower you hit the player, the better.”
The Missouri coaching staff has started teaching different fundamentals for how tacklers should bring someone down.
They stress hitting players lower, wrapping up their legs and rolling, what’s called a “rugby tackle,” a system developed in American football by the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. It avoids contact to the head of the offensive player and also keeps a defender’s head out of the tackle.
Traditional football tackling involves grabbing a player at the chest and driving up and through his torso on the way to the ground, a method that largely leaves an offensive player’s head out of the action, but not a defender’s. It’s exemplified by the old football adage: “See what you hit and hit what you see.”
Now, Pinkel wants to amend that classic technique and encourage players to hit lower in the chest. It’s also sparked a renewed discussion on defensive positioning, especially for players in the secondary, because being a split second closer to the play can give defenders more time to zero in on the proper “strike zone.”
“Our coaches always tell us, ‘Go lower,’” Simon said. “I had a pretty good hit on a guy in practice. I gave him a good pop and coaches told me after the play, ‘You need to aim a little bit lower.’”
Even a hit on the upper chest or in the shoulder area is a dangerous play, Pinkel said. A helmet to the shoulder could also catch a player in the neck or the helmet — and could be perceived as illegal.
Plus, what if a ball carrier ducks at the last moment? Bang. You’ve set yourself up for a head-to-head collision.
And maybe an ejection. Which, beyond safety, is reason to be careful.