BLOOMINGTON — A sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium watched host Indiana dominate on defense for nearly a half Saturday against No. 8 Cincinnati.
Then came a replay review. A flag. An announcement. And everything changed.
One of IU’s stars on defense, preseason All-American linebacker Micah McFadden, was ejected for targeting after replays showed he connected facemasks with Cincinnati quarterback Spencer Ridder. McFadden was blocked into Ridder on the pass-rush play. But by the letter of the rule, there was helmet-to-helmet contact, with McFadden’s momentum taking him upward.
With McFadden no longer in the game, Cincinnati cut Indiana’s early 14-point lead to 14-10 at halftime, then eventually pulled away in the second half for a 38-24 win. McFadden’s ejection, one of a handful involving high-profile players through the first three weeks of the college football season, has raised questions as to whether an ejection is too harsh a penalty for a targeting call.
Indiana head coach Tom Allen disagreed with the call after reviewing it on film. Allen said he’s about player safety, but intent should be taken into account when targeting calls are made.
“Coaches, we talk about this a lot,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of agreement that the rule right now needs to be evaluated. The ejection for something like that is not what it needs to be. So if they want to go Targeting 1, Targeting 2 and whether it’s flagrant, just kind of like the basketball, flagrant foul thing, I think that definitely needs to be — just me giving my two cents here, I think that’s what needs to be done.”
For McFadden, the penalty was tough to swallow. Under an adjustment to the rule this offseason, he was allowed to stay on the sideline after he was ejected in the second half, serving as a defacto coach and motivator to his teammates. But it wasn’t enough as Cincinnati gained 206 of its 328 yards in the second half.
“There could be some changes to it,” McFadden said. “Maybe there could be a two penalty rule or something and the second one was an ejection. The rule is what the rule is now, and they are not going to change it mid-game because of something iffy like that. Maybe it will in the future because of the way the game is going, but I can’t control that.”
Big Ten director of officials Bill Carollo said a tiered system of targeting calls, with an ejection for two Targeting 1 penalties and one Targeting 2 penalty, was discussed during the offseason. The concern, Carollo said, was officials would call the lesser Targeting 1 penalty more often. That happened when there were two tiers of facemask penalties (5 yards and 15 yards), and as a result, the NCAA changed back to one 15-yard facemask penalty.
“It’s probably a softer way, and a lot of people would be happy,” Carollo said of the tiered system. “I kind of like, ‘You know what, here’s the rule, don’t do it and here’s the penalty, really heavy penalty.’ You are kicked off for the rest of the game, and the second half you are kicked off for the first half of the next one. That’s pretty heavy for kids that are only playing 12, 13, 14 games.”
The NCAA adopted the targeting rule in 2013 in light of the crisis surrounding head injuries at all levels of football. It’s unclear at this point how much it has impacted player behavior. In 2018, USA Today reported targeting penalties were down 32% from the prior year. But in 2017, the Associated Press reported a record 188 targeting calls, a 31% increase from the 2016 season.
Coaches throughout the country are mindful of the impact of targeting ejections as well. Former Louisville and current Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham admitted he rested several key defensive players in the second half after the Gators built a commanding lead at halftime against USF. The reason? He was concerned about a potential targeting call involving one of his starters, in which the ejection would have carried over into the first half of the following game against No. 1 Alabama.
“With the way the targeting rule is now, what happens if one of those guys I mentioned gets a targeting penalty in that game and you’re up 35-3?” Grantham said. “That doesn’t make much sense to me.”
In Penn State’s three games this season, two players for the Nittany Lions and an opposing player have been flagged for targeting.
Penn State linebacker Ellis Brooks was called for targeting in the fourth quarter following a shoulder-to-shoulder sideline collision with Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz.
The flag irritated Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt.
“I just hate the ejection,” Klatt said during the broadcast. “This is a problem with this rule. … At some point, you have to measure intent.”
A week later, Penn State safety Tyler Rudolph was flagged and ejected during the second half of the Nittany Lions’ win against Ball State.
During last week’s Penn State-Auburn primetime contest, Tigers’ linebacker Zackoby McClain was flagged for targeting during a fourth-quarter play in which he dove to the turf in a tackle attempt on Penn State wide receiver Parker Washington near the goal line.
McClain later titled a tweet, “So I suppose to just let him score?” in response to a video of the play someone shared on Twitter defending the linebacker’s intentions. McClain will have to the sit out the first half of Auburn’s next game Saturday against Georgia State.
“I do think there is going to need to be, probably at the end of the season, a discussion where we get coaches and officials and the (American Football Coaches Association) involved and really just sit down and talk it all through, with the doctors as well, and make some decisions,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.