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Egregious targeting committed by UCLA against Stanford last night

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I will calm down in a few years, and only after UCLA football makes large donations to concussion research and a charity of Francis Owusu’s choice.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

I am very angry. Not that last night’s game in the Rose Bowl was much closer than it should have been. Not that Christian McCaffrey’s streak of 200 all-purpose-yard games is over (the guy got 138 yards rushing on over 5 yards per carry; not too shabby). Not that Stanford’s new quarterback and offensive line finally showed their lack of experience. Not that Stanford’s stout defense surrendered ten of UCLA’s thirteen points on drives that began with Stanford turnovers. Not that David Shaw wasted a challenge on the spot of the ball, then punted on fourth-and-inches when his team had been running downhill against UCLA all night (5.6 yards per rush). Not even that my favorite football team almost killed my friends and me by inducing acute heart failure. There’s time to talk about all of that later (much later—we have a short week ahead to get ready for a very tough Washington team).

No, I’m furious because UCLA was head hunting.

We knew we’d get UCLA’s best shot. As has been pointed out ad nauseum, Stanford had beaten UCLA eight times in a row prior to last night’s game. Those eight match-ups included a Pac-12 title game and a Stanford victory that knocked UCLA out of the conference championship. The last time UCLA beat Stanford, George W. Bush was president, the iPhone 3G was only a few months old (it even had a headphone jack!), and Instagram wouldn’t exist for another two years.

Understandably, UCLA fans take a dim view of this, and they have attached all sorts of psychological importance to the Stanford-UCLA rivalry that it probably doesn’t really warrant. The point is, UCLA was going to be fired up for this game. They were going to do absolutely everything they could to beat Stanford last night, and anyone who expected something other than a close, physical, hard-fought game was delusional. I’ve always had a lot of respect for UCLA. It’s one of the finest academic institutions in the world, and, like Stanford, it’s managed to be successful in sports without turning the term "student-athlete" into a farce. I expected a clean, well-coached battle between two very good football teams.

We got a physical battle between two very good teams, but not a clean one. Not even close.

Stanford’s first possession of the game was a methodical drive that stalled in the red zone due to penalties on the offensive line. Stanford settled for a field goal. The defense stopped UCLA’s first drive after three plays. On the ensuing possession, Ryan Burns locked onto Taijuan Thomas, thereby completely missing linebacker Kenny Young, who sat on the route and intercepted the ball. Young returned the interception 40 yards, deep into Stanford territory. UCLA took advantage of the short field and scored a touchdown, making the score 7-3 UCLA.

The next drive, I thought, was sure to be hugely important. Stanford faced its first deficit of the season. Stanford needed to show some resilience by overcoming a major mistake made by its inexperienced new quarterback. Following his pregame roadmap, David Shaw inserted Keller Chryst for one drive. I remember questioning that decision at the time. Not only am I not a fan of rotating quarterbacks in general, but at this particular time it sent a message—whether intended or not—that Shaw had lost confidence in Burns.

Thanks to a substitution infraction, Stanford quickly found itself staring down a third-and-ten from its own 47. Chryst delivered a perfect ball to Dalton Schultz for what would have been a first down, but UCLA defensive back Tahaan Goodman delivered a hard hit that separated Schultz from the ball. Inexplicably, Kirk Herbstreit, whom I normally like a lot, called it a "clean hit." After Chris Fowler pointed out that Goodman left his feet to make the hit, Herbstreit argued that Goodman "led with his shoulder into [Schultz’s] chest."

Goodwin Hits Schultz

Not true. Replays clearly showed that Goodman led with his helmet and made contact first with Schultz’s face mask. At the time, I was flabbergasted Goodman wasn’t flagged for targeting. I thought, maybe, he didn’t deserve to be ejected, but it was painfully obvious that Stanford should have been awarded fifteen yards and a first down. I suppose you could argue that Schultz was holding the ball up high, and that Goodman appeared to aim for an area near the ball. Perhaps, but it’s still targeting. Goodman left his feet intending to make contact with the front of Schultz’s face (see photo on right, above), and Goodman led with his helmet (see photo on left, above). That means he checked off two of the indicators of targeting: (1) "a player leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make forcible contact in the head or neck area"; and (2) "Leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area." Goodman unarguably left his feet to attack the head or neck area. Even if you claim he led with his shoulder (I don't think he did), he still initiated contact in the head or neck area. That's targeting.

Of course, officials miss calls with some frequency. I’m often impressed by how much they get right on the field, but I was still shocked that a call this obvious got blown. Then it got worse.

Stanford forced another punt on UCLA’s next drive and started moving down the field. Burns was sacked on second-and-seven from the UCLA 29, setting up third-and-fifteen. Burns hit Francis Owusu for a seventeen yard gain and a first down, but Goodman delivered another punishing hit, causing Owusu to flop to the ground and drop the football. UCLA picked it up, and Owusu lay face-down on the field, not moving.

I don’t even know how to describe my reaction to the fact that again, the officials missed an indisputable targeting penalty. I already used "flabbergasted," to describe my reaction to the lack of a penalty for the hit on Schultz, and I don’t have a better word here, even though "flabbergasted" doesn’t even begin to cover it. The referees missed this one on the field, but, because the play resulted in a turnover, it was automatically reviewed by the replay official. As ESPN repeatedly replayed the awful, cringe-inducing hit, I confidently and loudly expressed my conviction that targeting would be called; Stanford would be awarded the ball, fifteen yards, and a first down; and Goodman would be ejected. There was simply no way that anyone could watch that play and reach a contrary conclusion. ESPN’s rules expert Dave Cutaia said bluntly, "That looks like targeting to me." Herbstreit agreed: "He hits him in the facemask. He also lowers his helmet. . . Oh yeah." Cutaia again: "That to me is with the crown of the helmet. I think that’s a targeting call." I’m not going to post a photo of this one because I’ve seen it too many times already and because I don’t like watching players get hurt. My colleague Matt Vassar posted about it during the game with pictures and video if you really want to see it again.

Then the head official stunned everyone in the Rose Bowl and everyone watching on TV by saying, "With respect to targeting, there was no targeting with the crown of the helmet. Therefore the ruling on the field stands: interception."

It’s hard to begin to describe how much is wrong with that statement. Let’s start with the most bizarre (but least important) one: no one anywhere thinks that an interception occurred on that play. It was a fumble. Second, Goodman plainly did lead with the crown of his helmet, as Herbstreit, Cutaia, and I all agree. Third, the targeting rule does not require leading with the crown of the helmet. It’s enough to either (1) leave your feet to make forcible contact in the head or neck area; or (2) lead with the helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand, or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area. Goodman did both of those things. Of course, leading with the crown of the helmet is also an indicator of targeting, and Goodman did that, too.

So I was incensed at halftime. Stanford was down seven points, but that wasn’t what I was upset about. In fact, I was sure Stanford would win. I was mad about the two missed targeting penalties, both of which killed Stanford drives, and one of which injured a Stanford player. It didn’t help that both of Stanford’s starting cornerbacks, Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder, had been knocked out of the game. It seemed like UCLA was out for blood (literally) and wouldn’t stop until multiple Stanford players were carted off the field. I dropped in on the game thread to express my revulsion:

Game thread post

Now, you may be thinking, "Oh, randalthor, you’re overreacting. There’s no proof UCLA was trying to hurt anyone. It was probably just a coincidence that Holder and Meeks (and later Daniel Marx) were injured, and maybe Goodman’s just an overaggressive bad apple." To be clear, I don't think UCLA was trying to hurt anyone intentionally. But its definitely the case that their defensive backs were consistently making dangerous and illegal hits.

One of two things must be true. Either UCLA’s defensive coaches are teaching their players with the old, pre-targeting-rule "hit them as hard as you can to separate them from the ball" school of defensive backing, or Goodman wasn’t playing the way he was coached. I’d hope that, regardless of which it was, the UCLA coaching staff spent some time lecturing their defensive backs during halftime about the proper way to make a clean hit.

If they did, the message went entirely unheeded. Nine minutes into the third quarter, still down seven points, Stanford began a drive on its own 30. Ryan Burns opened the possession by faking a hand-off to McCaffrey and keeping the ball himself. He picked up nine yards on a gutty run but was leveled by UCLA defensive back Adarius Pickett as Burns went to the ground. Pickett lowered his head, led with the crown of his helmet, and made direct contact with Burns’s head:

Pickett hits Burns

Once again, the targeting was both totally undeniable and completely overlooked. Herbstreit and Fowler mentioned that it was a hard hit but didn’t talk about the targeting, perhaps because it was Pickett, not Burns, who was shaken up on the play and had to leave the game (though Pickett jogged off the field under his own power; the trainers were not involved). The officials ignored it as well.

At this point I have to stop excoriating the UCLA coaching staff and players and start on the officials. What happened during the game was disgusting. My respect for UCLA and Jim Mora are gone. That UCLA’s dirty play was never flagged only made it worse. For a sport that claims to have made a commitment to player safety, this is simply inexcusable. It’s been an issue in the NFL, but it’s, if anything, even more important in the college game, where the players aren’t paid and most of them won’t ever play professionally. If the NCAA is truly taking the players’ safety seriously, this game should stand as a glaring example of how football should never be played or officiated.

Thankfully, the universe’s karmic mechanisms were working properly. Burns redeemed himself by leading a gritty touchdown drive to win the game, with help from Trent Irwin's heroics and an incredible catch by JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Then, to ice the game, Joey Alfieri sacked Josh Rosen and knocked the ball loose. Solomon Thomas, who had anchored a fantastic defensive line all game, scooped it up and returned the ball for a touchdown and the 22-13 final margin.

Stanford fans, let’s be grateful that our team escaped the Rose Bowl with a win. Let’s hope and pray that Owusu isn’t seriously injured and that Meeks, Holder, and Marx are healthy by Friday. We’ll need them in Seattle. Above all, though, all college football fans should be appalled by the way UCLA played this game and by the way the officials called it. Let’s hope that the NCAA gets its act together and backs up what it says about player safety with some real action.