Brian Kelly had to walk a very delicate line on Tuesday afternoon when talking to the assembled local media. No, it didn't have anything to do with the coach's refusal to run the football in the second half against Pittsburgh. But rather it was about defending one of his team's most important players after a violation of one of college football's most important new rules.
Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt's ejection against Pitt is just the latest example of a good NCAA idea gone bad. (Shocking, right?) Tuitt was thrown out of Notre Dame's 28-21 loss to the Panthers after the first play of the second quarter, when the 6'6", 312-pound lineman chased down Pitt quarterback Tom Savage as he scrambled for a first down and a helmet-to-helmet collision with the quarterback ended with a 15-yard personal foul and a very irate Kelly.
While cameras caught Kelly's initial thoughts very clearly, the head coach did his best to measure his words Tuesday, while bemoaning the fact that a rule that made sense when it was implemented in August has turned into something that clearly needs rethinking.
"Clearly when a 320-pound inside player is running from the hash to the numbers at full speed and trying to make a play, and he gets thrown out of the game, I don't think that's what the rule was intended for," Kelly explained Tuesday. "So clearly we're going to have to look at the rule in greater detail after the season. We don't want to take that out of the game. We don't want to take that effort out of the game. We don't want to take guys selling out trying to make plays out of the game."
The ACC disagreed. Doug Rhoads, the conference's coordinator of officials, looked at both the targeting flag and the ensuing replay that confirmed Tuitt's ejection and agreed with the ACC officials at Heinz Field.
"The play was reviewed in the booth and reply determined that the call stood as targeting," an ACC spokesperson told the Chicago Tribune. "Subsequently, Doug has reviewed the play (and the five angles we have showing the play) and agrees that it was indeed targeting, and the correct call was made."
That type of ruling is the exact thing that frustrates the Irish head coach. Especially considering the fact that Savage, Pitt's 6'5", 230-pound quarterback, dropped his head and shoulders as he tried to barrel forward for the first down.
"When you watch college football, one of the biggest problems we have is that it's being interpreted differently," Kelly said. "One of the things we've tried so hard to rectify in officiating is to be more universal in our interpretations. Now we've got one out there that's looked at differently by conference.
"We have a problem. We all recognize that. It's a real shame that a young man misses a game. I think we all recognize that it has to be dealt with, but we can't deal with it until the end of the year."
Don't think that Brian Kelly is alone in this.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer wants the rule revisited this offseason, according to the Associated Press, after cornerback Bradley Roby was ejected for a high hit on Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. Meyer's statements are almost a carbon copy of Kelly's.
"The NCAA and everybody is going to want to relook at that rule. We at Ohio State are very concerned about player safety. We have gone to the Nth degree with adjusting practice. Any rule for the safety of players, no question we support it," Meyer said. "However, that was a game-changer. To take one of your better players out of the game, that impacted that game."
"Personally, on the rule itself, if you can review a play to say a guy should be ejected or not be ejected, to me, you should be able to review if it was a penalty or not a penalty," Saban said Monday. "That's not what the rule is."
Even the dean of officiating, Fox's Mike Pereira, has made it clear that the rule needs changing. Pereira wrote this after a crazy October Saturday saw multiple players ejected for targeting, with the rule enforced differently in just about every case.
I vowed never to talk about targeting again because it's my least favorite rule in NCAA football.
Sorry crew, I can't do it.
In the early games we were watching on Saturday, there were four targeting calls in three different games — two in the Georgia-Vanderbilt; South Carolina-Tennessee; Florida-Missouri — and three of the four ejections were upheld in replay.
Just so we know the rules, here's what the NCAA rule book says about targeting.
NCAA Targeting Rules:
- Rule 9-1, Article 3 (targeting with the crown of the helmet): No player shall target and initiate contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. When in question, it is a foul.
- Rule 9-1-4 (targeting to head/neck area of a defenseless player): No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder. When in question, it is a foul.
- On overturning ejections: The replay official must have conclusive evidence that a player should not be ejected to overturn the call on the field.
In the case of the hit that robbed the Irish of their last healthy starting defensive lineman, it's hard to see how the collision we see above should have resulted in Tuitt's dismissal when compared to the letter of the law. Tuitt wasn't the player who initiated contact. Savage was hardly defenseless (he was the aggressor, charging for the first down), and the replay rule seems antithetical to every other use of replay in football—when in doubt, eject the player?
What did Notre Dame lose in Tuitt’s ejection? More than a yard per play. Pitt averaged 3.7 ypp with Tuitt in vs. 4.9 ypp with Tuitt out.— Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals) November 12, 2013
Kelly talked about how difficult it was to explain to his star defensive end why he was ejected and also how difficult it was to force Tuitt to stay in the locker room for the remainder of the game while his teammates played. Kelly didn't sound like a guy that wanted to move past the ejection, he's hoping to be a committee member when the rule is opened back up for discussion this offseason.
"You're talking to someone who's had two guys thrown out of games this year," Kelly said. "You know where I fall on this one. I am for player safety. I am for making sure that in this game of football that we do everything to protect the integrity of the game. We don't have it right yet. We need to get it right. Hopefully we'll be able to get it right."
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.