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Game day: Kentucky vs. Florida
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With just a few minutes to go Saturday night, Kentucky was clinging to a 21-16 lead over No. 9 Florida and the Wildcats’ defense came up with a huge quarterback sack to lead to a third-and-long situation for the Gators.
Or, so it seemed.
Jordan Wright had Florida quarterback Kyle Trask in his grasp, swung him around, and UK teammate T.J. Carter came in to deliver the final blow. Had the play stood, it would have been third-and-15 for Florida on its own 44-yard line.
Instead, Carter was called for targeting, assessed a 15-yard penalty, and ejected from the game. The Gators got an automatic first down. Three plays later, they scored a touchdown to take a 22-21 lead. Kentucky never led again. Florida won 29-21.
It was the second targeting call and ejection to go against Kentucky in the game. Starting defensive back Yusuf Corker was tossed for the same penalty in the first quarter. Since Carter’s offense happened in the second half, he’ll miss the first half of next week’s game at Mississippi State.
A Florida player was also ejected for targeting Saturday night.
UK Coach Mark Stoops, whose team lost starting linebacker Chris Oats to a targeting penalty in the season opener, has been accepting and supportive of the rule in the past. It was designed to add an extra level of safety to the sport, and its intent is to limit head and neck injuries among players.
Stoops expressed frustration after Saturday’s loss.
“You know, I said it last week, and you know, I’ll say it again, it’s very difficult,” he said. “I’m not saying at all that the officials made a wrong call. It’s just a tough call. It’s a tough call. You’ve got a chance to win a game, you know, with … third and super long. You get a targeting.”
Stoops let out a long sigh, then continued.
“Something’s gotta be done with that rule and the call, and you know, putting laundry on the field there to dictate a game again is tough,” he said.
In Carter’s case, he was going in to finish the sack on Trask and lowered his helmet just before making contact. Trask also lowered his head on the play, and, as a result, it ended up being a helmet-to-helmet hit.
By the letter of the rule, it was indeed targeting.
UK’s players and coaches didn’t dispute that after the game. They did say, however, that Carter was simply making what is accepted to be a “football play,” and the definition of the rule makes it tough for defenders to adjust in such fast-paced situations.
“It’s so hard these days,” UK defensive coordinator Brad White said. “When a ball carrier, a QB, he’s in the grasp and he gets pulled down — you don’t really know where that aiming point is going to be. I thought Yusuf’s was close, too. But, again, I’m not the ref, so I don’t know. In that regard, the biggest thing is we try to bring our arms and we keep our eyes high and stay away from the crown of the helmet. A guy like T.J., who has a neck roll on, that gets a little bit harder. And I don’t know if that ever gets taken into account, but obviously it didn’t. Those are plays that we have to overcome. We can’t let that sink the ship.”
The NCAA rule book has a lengthy, detailed entry on targeting, and it’s mentioned as one of the sport’s “points of emphasis” for the 2019 season. The rule has many variations and definitions, including, “leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area.”
White said UK’s coaches are constantly teaching players about the rule, but it’s a difficult one for defenders to follow when trying to make a play.
“We gotta keep trying to coach our guys, and it’s hard, in terms of: you’re a football player, and you’re trying to go make a tackle,” he said. “And you’ve got offensive linemen holding you. You’re trying to come over full speed. And the plane varies so much so quickly. And it’s OK that an offensive player drops his head. But, how does a defender know that he’s going to do that? But we’re not going to make excuses about that. We’ve got to overcome those penalties. It hurts that young men get thrown out of games, though. There was no intention of head injuries, or head or neck shots.”
The guys actually playing the game agreed.
“I feel like it just happens,” UK defensive lineman Kordell Looney said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, let’s just target.’ I feel like it’s just football.”
“You think the person will stay up, and if he just gets lower, the call is on you regardless,” Wright added.
Later in his postgame press conference, Stoops was asked what he thought could be done to change the rule. “I can’t win in this situation,” he said. “I’d rather not comment right now. You know, it’s frustrating.”
But he kept talking, his frustration clear.
“You know, I think there’s plays — there’s just plays. You know, it’s one of those deals where if it’s called, it’s going to be upheld if certain things happen in it,” Stoops said. “Well, it could be called an awful lot. You know, to have a game decided in that moment, when a guy — what am I supposed to tell my guys? My guys are fighting, clawing, scrambling, trying to get ‘em down and giving everything they got, and you get that called.”