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WSU vs. USC ends with horrible missed targeting call

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This hit was dangerous and bad for a number of reasons, so let’s talk about head trauma for minute.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Just before the end of last night’s game against USC, Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew took a shot at the tail end of the play that appears to have gone unnoticed by everyone on the field, including the officials.

Here’s the targeting rule:

No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent (See Note 2 below) with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder. This foul requires that there be at least one indicator of targeting (See Note 1 below). When in question, it is a foul (Rules 2-27-14 and 9-6). (A.R. 9-1-4-I-VI)

Note 1: “Targeting” means that a player takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball. Some indicators of targeting include but are not limited to:

Launch—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

A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area, even though one or both feet are still on the ground

Leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area

Lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet

Note that you need only one of those indicators for a foul. This one had all four, and is exactly the kind of hit that has no business in football. He comes in late and high on a defenseless player (who is also being dragged down already), crouches and launches, lowers his head, and goes high. It’s a great way to cause a concussion and a whole lot of other injuries that get more serious from there.

It’s also a foul that you absolutely cannot miss as an official in the stadium. If the goal is to increase player safety and remove dangerous blows to the head from the game, you cannot miss them on the field. This is more than a holding call or player grabbing a receiver. The consequences of these hits is dangerous in both the short and long term.

There’s the immediate consequence of there not being an ejection and 15 yard penalty, each of which changes the game at a hugely consequential moment. These are the least important to me here, so we’re just going to keep it moving.

I’m also not a doctor. I couldn’t tell you if Gardner Minshew had a concussion because of the hit, or any injuries that can result from it. I can tell you that Minshew spent most of Friday night looking calm and collected, moving the offense almost at will and playing in rhythm. It looked like a clean, crisp Air Raid from about the first quarter on.

This was two plays after the hit — after a basic running play:

That’s an offense that looks completely confused, and doesn’t even make sense for the down and distance: Beyond running on 3rd and 6, the short side receivers run their defenders right into the play; the line is blocking in two different ways; and only one of the routes is even past the sticks (and it’s a run-off route).

It was a mess, something Minshew acknowledged afterwards while calling it “really stupid.”

I’m not sure Minshew knew where he was or the down and distance, and he definitely didn’t kill the play cleanly (this is how you get an offense running two different plays). All of this is way out of character for him and all of it ended the game.

So the short-term effect is a confused quarterback bungling the end of a series right after taking a shot to the head that wasn’t flagged. It’s all a pretty good indicator that something wasn’t right with Minshew at the time.

The potential longer-term effects are darker. Blows to the head are a bad thing no matter what diagnosed injury they do or do not result in. Whether a concussion or not, having your brain rattle around because someone rocketed the top of a helmet into it isn’t a good thing for long-term health and can shorten a lifespan in a number of ways.

The simplest way I can put this is that we can debate research and statistics about head trauma, concussions, and CTE while trying to litigate precisely what the effect of hits like the one on Minshew do to a football player’s brain. Or we can acknowledge that, on a basic level, a person getting drilled in the head is a bad thing and should be removed from the game by any means possible, because the head is neither a weapon nor a suitable defense against one.

To do so, plays like the above need to be flagged and punished. Replay officials need to catch and stop play when a player takes a blow to the head — not just to sort out penalties, but also to ensure the player is actually safe. And the punishments need to be swift and consequential enough to scare coaches and players into changing techniques over the short- and long-term, at all levels. The stakes are higher than with any other penalty in the rule book, and very little of that has to do with a game result itself.