Ute football coaches hope the NCAA’s upgraded targeting rule will clarify a ‘capricious’ subject

Utah defensive lineman Leki Fotu’s targeting penalty that took away teammate Cody Barton’s interception and sustained a Washington touchdown drive last September is one of several plays the Utes wish they could redo after losing twice to the Huskies in 2018.

That ruling may have gone in Utah’s favor in the eventual 21-7 loss, if the NCAA’s new approach to targeting calls had been in place at the time. Of the five targeting penalties the Utes received in 2018, Fotu’s was a documented case of the replay official’s saying the call on the field “stands” — as opposed to being “confirmed,” as is now the adopted standard.

Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and, especially, coach Kyle Whittingham have questioned what they view as inconsistent application of the previous standard. They're hopeful that officials will follow through on making sure a targeting call is justified.

They endorse safety, via enforcement of rules against using the crown of the helmet and making forcible contact to the head or neck area of a player. Yet they also want penalties to be thoroughly studied and fairly assessed, and Whittingham is optimistic that will happen in 2019 and beyond.

The clarity about targeting is “in a better place now than it's ever been,” Whittingham said. “We haven't actually experienced the new process, but the way they explain it and the way it's going to be looked at during the course of the game and the decisions that will be made, it's going to be a much better situation. I hope so.”

In November, responding to a targeting call against former Ute linebacker Chase Hansen vs. Colorado, Whittingham labeled the application “arbitrary” and “capricious.”

Stanford coach David Shaw, chairman of the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Committee, was extensively involved in the targeting study. Requiring an on-field call to be confirmed is intended to raise the standard for a targeting ejection (also forcing the player to miss the first half of the next game, if it occurs in the second half).

“The idea for replay in every sport is to get it right, and taking out letting things stand was a huge focal point of ours to say if we're not sure on replay, then it can't be a foul,” Shaw said during the Pac-12 Football Media Day in July. “And there's going to be some conjecture. There's still going to be some plays that could have gone one way or the other. But we want to say, you know what, before we kick a kid out of the game … we need to make sure that we get the call right.

Shaw added, “So if on replay we don't see all the elements of targeting, then it can't be targeting.”

That’s not to say all targeting calls in the past were unjustified, although some of them were questionable and some hurt Utah more than others. Fotu’s penalty was costly because it extended Washington’s third-quarter drive, and then his absence was noticeable in the first half of the next game at Washington State. The Cougars scored 21 points in the first half of a 28-24 victory.

Former Utah safety Marquise Blair's aggressive tackling is among the reasons the Seattle Seahawks made him a second-round pick in April. Blair had two targeting penalties last season; the one against Washington on a running play was more questionable than the one against UCLA.

In the second case, Blair missed the first half of the next game at Arizona State. Utah then lost his backup, Philip Afia, to a targeting call in the first quarter at ASU.

Scalley, who personally coaches Utah's safeties, is conscious of teaching proper techniques. “We coach 'strike zone' and where to keep your head when you're tackling,” he said. “There are going to be plays where [offensive players] duck their head and contact happens. So, hopefully, it's about intent. That's the biggest part of that rule. Now, with the review, hopefully they can say, 'OK, that may not be the intent of that tackle.' ”

To offset the apparent softening of the rule, however, the NCAA will assess a full-game suspension to a player who receives three targeting penalties during the year. “We’re trying to get the call right, but once we get it right, you can’t have three in a season,” Shaw said.