Missouri football tries to balance big hits, serious consequences

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 | 4:33 p.m. CDT; updated 11:54 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 28, 2013

COLUMBIA — Every college football fan remembers the 2013 Outback Bowl for one fourth quarter play.

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney broke through the Michigan offensive line and destroyed Wolverines running back Vincent Smith, who lost both his helmet and the football in the collision.

The (other) new NCAA rules

• Another new rule effective this season regards blocking below the waist. In the past two years, the Football Rules Committee has adjusted rules governing these blocks in an attempt to reduce or remove potentially dangerous plays. But the changes have caused more confusion and inconsistency than intended. The new rule focuses on the block itself and will allow these blocks by stationary players in typical line play.

• Adding a 10-second runoff with less than a minute remaining in either half when the sole reason for the clock stoppage is because of injury.

• Establishing three seconds as the minimum amount of time required to be on the game clock in order to spike the ball to stop the clock. If one or two seconds remain on the clock, there is only time for the offense to run one more play.

• Requiring a player that changes numbers during the game to report this to the referee, who will announce it.

• Precluding multiple players from the same team from wearing the same uniform number (for example, two quarterbacks on the same team are not allowed to have the same number).

• Allowing the use of electronic communication by the on-field officiating crew (the practice was used successfully on an experimental basis by the Southeastern Conference). This is a permissive rule and not a requirement.

• Allowing instant replay to adjust the clock at the end of each quarter. Previously, this provision was in place only for the end of each half.

• To clarify uniform rules as follows: “Jerseys must have clearly visible, permanent Arabic numerals measuring at least 8 and 10 inches in height front and back, respectively, and be of one solid color that itself is clearly in distinct contrast with the color of the jersey, irrespective of any border around the number.” This rule goes into effect for Football Bowl Subdivision teams in 2013. Football Championship Subdivision, Division II and Division III teams will have until 2014 before the rule becomes effective.

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The hit and ensuing turnover were key moments in a game that South Carolina would ultimately win, and the play dominated ESPN highlights for months afterward.

But it was also cause for controversy. The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a new rule to prevent “targeting” — hitting a defenseless player above the shoulders — this spring, and the Clowney hit was front and center as a case study in the media.

Atlantic Coast Conference officiating supervisor Doug Rhoads said he believed Clowney would have faced ejection — the new targeting punishment — if the hit took place under new rules. Former Pac-12 officiating consultant Mike Pereira agreed that Clowney would probably be ejected for a similar hit this season.

There are several new rule changes this season (see sidebar), but this one is the most talked about. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said he sent tape of three big-hit incidents in fall practice to a review board. Two of them, the review said, would have been grounds for ejection, while the other would have been okay.

But that’s precisely the dilemma for officials, players and coaches. If the rule is open to this much interpretation, there is bound to be a gray area.

“The big hitters and everybody in the country is talking about this,” Pinkel said. “You’ve got to really watch yourself. Those big hits ignite defenses, but we want to protect the players. We spent a lot of time on that, I’ll tell you that, a lot of time with the defensive players.”

Tigers safety Matt White, who made one such gray-area hit in an Aug. 22 scrimmage, said that avoiding illegal hits will be difficult, but not impossible.

“It matters with the timing of the ball,” White said. “If I see that he’s already trying to catch the ball, I’ll try to hit him. But if I get there early, I’ll try to break up the pass just in case to keep it out of the refs’ hands.”

The rule is more focused on defensive backs like White who fly around at high speeds to snuff unsuspecting receivers. But Clowney — the man who helped spur the national conversation — is a defensive lineman.

Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy empathized with Clowney. And, despite Pinkel’s insistence that the program worked on cutting such hits down, Ealy said he won’t be changing his game anytime soon.

“In a real-life situation, you can’t pause and wait for the quarterback to hand the running back the ball,” Ealy said. “We’ve got to get in there and make as many plays as we can. You can’t worry about the way you hit.”

There was a stipulation, though.

“Now, if you’re trying to hurt him in some way, that’s a different story,” Ealy said. “You can’t just try to seek somebody out. That’s the message they’re trying to send in the conference and all over football.”

The rule, of course, was enacted in the name of safety. Vicious blows to the head can result in severe medical issues, and while some players could be unfairly ejected at an officiating crew’s discretion, Pinkel thinks it is a small price to pay for protection.

“There’s gonna be a tragedy some day, somewhere, NFL, college football, because we see the problem, but we’re not doing anything about it,” Pinkel said. “We’re doing the right things to protect kids and protect the game.”

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