My opinion about arguably the two most hackle-raising calls from Saturday’s Georgia Tech-Duke game – the targeting penalty on safety Corey Griffin and the incomplete pass from quarterback Justin Thomas to wide receiver DeAndre Smelter – is that both were justifiable.
I’m not sure I agree with the Griffin call, but I can understand why it was made. First, one of the two rules on targeting:
“No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, fist, elbow or shoulder. When in question, it is a foul.”
Looking at the still frame of the video from the ACC Network broadcast – apologies for the poor quality – it’s hard to say Griffin’s helmet didn’t contact running back Shaun Wilson’s helmet, which is one half of the necessary evidence for a targeting penalty. Was it targeting?
The rulebook’s definition of targeting: “To take aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with an apparent intent that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball.”
I would dispute there was intent. It looked like to me that he was playing the ball. Griffin led with his right shoulder into Wilson’s chest in an attempt to force an incompletion. The problem is that Wilson’s chest is close to his helmet, and Griffin’s shoulders are just below his head and helmet. (That's one year of high-school biology talking. Thanks, Mr. Miller!) So a player leading with his shoulder into an opponent's chest may unintentionally make helmet-to-helmet contact.
The way the rule is written, though, the “when in question, it is a foul” part offers a lot of latitude. In order to overturn the call, an official would have to look at that video and determine there was no intent to target and initiate contact to the head or neck with the player's helmet, and I don't know that you can say that. Not conclusively, at least.
I don’t know if Griffin targeted Wilson. He didn’t wrap him up, certainly, which is one of the factors that lessens the risk of a foul, although, obviously, he wasn’t trying to tackle him but instead jar the ball loose, so I can understand why he wouldn't wrap up. And, ultimately, again, he contacted Wilson’s helmet with his helmet. The review didn’t take long, and the referee said the play was not merely standing after review, but confirmed. It wouldn’t surprise me if that were the reason why.
As for the incomplete pass, there wasn’t conclusive evidence, in my opinion, to overturn. To me, the photos (again, sorry they’re not terribly clear) show that Smelter’s left hand is not under the ball. It doesn't have to be, necessarily. A pass can be ruled complete even if it touches the ground so long as the player has firm control of it.
The photos don’t show firm control to me. He could have had firm control, but I wouldn’t say it’s indisputable. Remember, too, the official who made the call was standing at the goal line, maybe six feet off the sideline. He had a pretty good vantage point on the play, and made the call that the ball hit the ground.
You can say a lot with a still photo that doesn't reflect what actually happened. You can take a look at the clips of the plays here. An explanation on the targeting rule is here. Coincidentally, the person who wrote the rule, Rogers Redding, the national coordinator of football officials for the American Football Coaches Association, is a 1965 graduate of Georgia Tech. He was a longtime college referee, including in the SEC. You may have known that - I did - but I had no idea that he was a physics professor and a senior academic administrator at North Texas, Northern Kentucky, the U.S. Air Force Academy and Colorado-Colorado Springs. Interesting.