Ron Gould remembers his playing days as an Oregon defensive back.
“It was a lot different,” says the UC Davis football coach. “You never saw helmet-to-helmet contact or launching being called a penalty. Those were just big hits.”
Gould thinks the game is better today, and not just because the players, coaching and training has improved. So has the focus on safety.
Those helmet-to-helmet hits and blows to the head are no longer legal. College football is in its fifth season of penalizing above-the-shoulder hits.
The NCAA stepped it up even more this year. Players who strike “defenseless” players above the shoulder with a shoulder, forearm or elbow; launch themselves toward opponents; or deliver a blow with the crown of their helmet now face more than just a 15-yard penalty. They also are immediately ejected and suspended for what’s called “targeting.”
Amid increased awareness of the risk of concussions and other head trauma in a sport under heavy attack, the new ejection penalty was seen as a way of forcing necessary change in how an inherently violent game is played.
Some say the rule is flawed in how it’s being implemented and interpreted. But coaches like Gould, Sacramento State’s Marshall Sperbeck and Cal Poly’s Tim Walsh support the toughened standards, though they admit the game is so fast and physical that sometimes players with no malicious intent wind up being ejected.
“I don’t think it’s made the game any less attractive,” Gould says. “We’re trying to keep it as safe as possible so these young men can continue to play and have careers, whether it’s in football or other walks of life.”
Under a rule passed in February, a player ejected for targeting in the first half of the game also is suspended for the second half. A player ejected in the second half must sit out the first two quarters of the next game. The Big Sky Conference announces suspensions in news releases.
In the higher-level Football Bowl Subdivision, 52 players were ejected through Oct. 19 for targeting, though 28 percent of the ejections were overturned immediately after video review. But the 15-yard penalty remains, one reason the new rule has received heavy criticism.
The Big Sky, which includes UC Davis, Sac State and Cal Poly, doesn’t use video reviews. Although those penalties are later reviewed, the suspensions are rarely overturned.
“Our coaches have had time to adjust to the rules and know if a hit happens, it’s likely leading to a suspension,” says Jon Kasper, the Big Sky assistant commissioner. “Now, five years ago, I’d say there was much more back-and-forth between coaches in the league when it came to the suspensions. Because we’ve had this stance for five years, the coaches are pretty understanding of it – for the most part.”
Three players have been ejected from Big Sky games this year – Sac State freshman linebacker Cole Hannum against Montana, Cal Poly senior defensive back Alex Hubbard against Portland State and Northern Colorado junior defensive back Courtney Hall against UC Davis. Sac State freshman Nick Crouch was ejected from a nonconference game at Arizona State.
Walsh, who has coached college football for 22 years, says the game has undergone dramatic changes in recent years with aggressive players like Hubbard having to play differently.
“Alex Hubbard had been taught to play a certain way,” Walsh says of Hubbard’s playing days at Fairfield High School and College of San Mateo. “Then the rule changes – not that it’s right or wrong – but it’s hard to change habits.”
Coaches are constantly reminding players to play fast and hard, and Hubbard is the epitome of that.
“Alex isn’t a headhunter in any way,” Walsh says. “But Alex Hubbard plays extremely fast. Sometimes, it gets him in a position where it appears he’s targeting. In a game, it just happens.”
Sperbeck says Big Sky officials are doing the best they can to enforce the rules with split-second decisions coming without the benefit of video review.
“Guys are ducking, jumping, and it’s a game of moving targets,” Sperbeck says. “The refs are doing the best they can when the game is going at full speed. Nevertheless, it’s not perfect. You look at our level, and there are a few hits that are being missed.”
But Sperbeck says the officials didn’t miss on Hannum’s bang-bang collision with a Montana ball carrier. The runner was starting to go down but was held up by another Sac State defender just as Hannum hit him with the top of his helmet.
“It was a penalty; he dropped his head,” Sperbeck says.
While coaches spend spring, summer and fall talking about the proper techniques of tackling, habits are hard to break, especially for those just out of high school.
UC Davis junior free safety Charles Boyett remembers his prep days in Napa as freewheeling at a time when dangers of concussions were just starting to grab headlines.
“In high school, I didn’t think there were any rules,” says Boyett, the Aggies’ leading tackler. “If there were, the refs weren’t too strict. So targeting wasn’t something on the back of my mind.”
But Boyett grew up with a good foundation of fundamentals, and they’ve only been reinforced and fine-tuned by Gould and his assistant coaches.
“You use proper technique, and you’re going to avoid penalties,” Boyett says. “Keep your head up, strike with your chest, wrap up. The biggest thing is seeing what you hit.”
But Boyett has empathy for players who are ejected. He says hits are rarely malicious.
“The game is so fast that sometimes things are hard to avoid, such as accidentally grabbing a face mask,” Boyett says. “You never go out there intentionally to hurt anyone. You’re just trying to help your team win a football game.”
Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton says all players penalized for targeting have their ejections reviewed, though they are rarely overturned. Fullerton also sends out what he calls “you’re very close” letters of warning to players who have made hits that border on targeting, even if they haven’t been penalized on the field.
Still, Fullerton agrees with many detractors that the new rule needs tweaking, especially when there’s still debate about what constitutes a target hit or just a good, hard tackle.
“We’ve had a group of retired officials coordinators – real experts – look at a series of plays, and they were absolutely split as to whether there was an infraction or not on many of them,” Fullerton said.
The one thing everyone agrees is that the game must continue to evolve or it will be decimated by lawsuits and youth flight to other sports if parents perceive it to be too dangerous.
“Football is under attack,” Fullerton said.
That’s made coaches like Gould determined to do their part. He had his players watch the conference’s video on targeting before the season. There are constant reminders in practice to keep heads up, wrap up and hit the strike zone between the waist and chest when tackling.
“Football, in my humble opinion, is the greatest game on earth,” Gould said. “So if we can continue to teach our players, from youth to college, the proper and safe way to play, then we’ll be able to save this fabulous game.”
SATURDAY'S AREA GAMES
Sacramento State: at Portland State, 1:05 p.m., 1380
UC Davis: vs. North Dakota, 4 p.m., 1140
Stanford: at USC, 5 p.m., Ch. 10, 1050
Cal: at Colorado, 2:30 p.m., PAC12, 810