How do you fix something that doesn’t seem wrong to you?
It’s a question coach Jim Harbaugh and his players are trying to figure out themselves. Early in the third quarter of Saturday’s game against SMU, junior VIPER Khaleke Hudson was ejected for targeting after he initiated helmet-to-helmet contact with Mustangs quarterback William Brown on a run play.
In Harbaugh’s weekly Monday press conference, he didn’t understand the call.
“Waiting for clarification on the targeting, still not with that one,” Harbaugh said. “I’d like an explanation, we’d all like an explanation on that. You compare it to other plays in the game where you’re hitting a ball carrier with the crown of your helmet, that’s happened a lot. In fact, the runner is leading with the crown of their helmet when they’re running a play. Didn’t think Khaleke’s was with the crown of his helmet. I thought he led with his shoulder.”
As the NCAA football rulebook states: “No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder.”
The impact of the aforementioned rule and its refinements to increase player safety have been highly publicized in recent years — a judgment typically drawing ire from coaches for its inherent subjectivity. Whether or not Hudson led with his shoulder or head, there was indisputable contact made with the crown of Brown’s helmet, which is defined as any area above the facemask, 360 degrees around the helmet. The players understand that targeting is not exclusive to helmet hits, but the definition of “forcible contact” has spurred disagreement.
“When a person like that is moving so fast, and the decision is almost instant and he ducks his head, I have nothing else left to hit besides lower my head lower than his and hurt my neck for him,” said junior middle linebacker Devin Bush. “It’s kinda hard to make those decisions going that fast.
“(Referees are) more trigger-happy with it. Any sign of a person getting hit, and it makes a certain kind of sound or their neck goes a certain way, they’re throwing a flag. If I’m hitting a person and I could get kicked out of the game for that, I’m only hurting my team for trying to win.”
Hudson’s ejection, which will force him to also miss the first half of the Big Ten opener against Nebraska on Saturday, was already the second targeting call for a Michigan player through three games. Early into the season opener against Notre Dame, junior safety Josh Metellus was ejected for targeting Fighting Irish tight end Alize Mack on a 26-yard reception.
Again, the referee’s decision bred confusion and a sobering realization.
“It’s just something we’ve gotta live with and work around with the rules of the game changing,” said senior safety Tyree Kinnel. “I didn’t think Khaleke or Josh committed targeting, but the ref called it so we’ve gotta deal with it.”
In the aftermath of the targeting calls, the defensive players have remained steadfastly confident that it’s an issue that can be mitigated, but also one that can be overcome when faced in games. Kinnel later praised backup safety Brad Hawkins for his emergence in the secondary, as well as backup VIPER Jordan Glasgow in the absence of Hudson in the second half.
But for others, like cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich, the reality of the now oft-enforced targeting rules has changed the way he coaches his unit.
“We watch film on things of that nature to remind the guys of those hits, those helmet-to-helmet (hits),” Zordich said after the Notre Dame game. “When I played, this is what it was all about — you put your face on things. Now you've got to keep that out of the way. It's a whole different way to play.
“And I totally appreciate it. But don't hurt the team because of a judgment call."
For now, Harbaugh, Zordich and their team await explanations from the Big Ten office about the targeting calls and other penalties the team inquired about. But even with clarification, a quick fix that satisfies all parties isn't in the cards.