Discussion of the NCAA’s targeting rule seems to present conflicting feelings for Washington Huskies coach Chris Petersen.
Ask him about the targeting call against UW linebacker Azeem Victor that resulted in Victor’s ejection from last week’s 17-12 win at USC — and the automatic, one-half suspension he must serve this week against Oregon as a result of that penalty — and it’s obvious Petersen wasn’t thrilled with the ruling.
“I can’t say anything,” said Petersen, which says plenty. “That’s the bottom line. You guys have seen it and it is what it is. I know what your opinion is. I know what everybody’s opinion is. It is what it is.”
Victor did hit USC quarterback Cody Kessler after he threw a pass in the fourth quarter last week, and it was late enough to warrant a flag for roughing-the-passer. But officials also ruled that Victor targeted Kessler’s head, even though replays appeared to show Victor lead with his arms into Kessler’s shoulder.
All targeting calls are automatically reviewed, and if the call is upheld — as it was in Victor’s case — the player is ejected from the game and must also sit out the first half of his team’s next game. Such a ruling is final; there is no mechanism for an appeal.
And while a reasonable person can conclude that Petersen probably isn’t particularly pleased with that process — on Monday, he said he would “really hope” that the rule be scrutinized this offseason — he’s using the occasion of Victor’s ejection to again emphasize the need for defensive players to target lower when hitting the quarterback.
The message: don’t hit him late — which linebacker Cory Littleton also did on that same possession — and don’t hit him high.
“The strike zone has changed completely,” Petersen said. “How we wrap up and all those different things factor in. If we do what we’re coached to do, we don’t put ourselves in a situation (to be penalized).”
UW linebackers coach Bob Gregory said Victor “knows he’s going to be a little bit of a marked man” going forward. That might also have something to do with the complaint lodged by California coach Sonny Dykes to the Pac-12 office after Victor appeared to land on the helmet-less head of Cal receiver Kenny Lawler with his elbow during UW’s 30-24 loss to Cal on Sept. 26. Victor was not penalized for that play or reprimanded by the Pac-12.
“We cannot hit the quarterback or anybody above the neck line,” Gregory said. “We have to target low. And that’s just the way it is. Those are the rules. We’ve got to keep players safe. He’s got to make sure he targets low.”
If there’s any gray area on a play that involves an offensive player’s head, Gregory said, “they’re going to throw the flag. … There won’t be any flag if we target low. If we target low, we’ll be fine.”
Victor has been somewhat of a revelation for a surprisingly stout Washington defense this season. The third-year sophomore from Compton, California, leads the team in tackles with 48 — including 5.5 tackles for loss — and his hard-hitting nature makes him an ideal enforcer at middle linebacker.
Without him for two quarters against Oregon on Saturday, the Huskies will likely rely on fifth-year senior Scott Lawyer, who has made 11 tackles in a reserve role this season. Petersen said third-year sophomore Sean Constantine and true freshman Ben Burr-Kirven will get some action at middle linebacker, too, while Victor bides his time.
“He definitely is mad, but he knows he’s going to come back in the second half,” said UW buck linebacker Travis Feeney. “Scotty Lawyer’s going to hold it down. He’s going to do his job, and then we get Azeem back in the second half, and we’ll just go on from there.”
And, their coach hopes, they’ll remove any possibility for a call they might not agree with.
“We’ve just got to watch out around the quarterback,” Feeney said. “If we’re going to hit him, we’ve got to make sure to wrap. We can’t just shoulder a guy and try to hit him in the head or anything.”