Iowa Football

Iowa finds itself paying a price for a targeting penalty

The rule itself is much more nuanced and comprehensive than just the helmet-to-helmet part

Iowa linebacker Amani Jones walks off the field after being ejected for a targeting penalty against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn., last Saturday.(Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa linebacker Amani Jones walks off the field after being ejected for a targeting penalty against Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn., last Saturday.(Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Amani Jones smiled and acknowledged the Hawkeye crowd as he was escorted off the field last week at Minnesota.

It’s been that kind of year for the junior middle linebacker.

Jones was hit with a targeting penalty late in the fourth quarter of Iowa’s 48-31 win. He came over to the sidelines and he knew the drill. Jones walked toward Iowa’s locker room. An assistant strength coach jumped in to escort him, which is the most ham-handed part of the ejection ritual.

Jones, who saw his most vital action since losing the middle linebacker job after three series in the opener, raised his hand and waved to a crowd that was, at this point, all Iowa fans.

Think of the wave as a “goodbye,” at least for the first half of the Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) game at Indiana (4-2, 1-1) (11 a.m. on ESPN2). In addition to the 15 yards for the targeting, there is, of course, the ejection and disqualification. Jones was ejected for the final minute last week and will have to sit out the first half this week.

Everyone has opinions on this. Of course, the only one that matters is that of Big Ten officials and the league’s director of officials Bill Carollo.

Jones’ hit set off alarms. Give the officials that.

“Everybody was on the same page out there,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “I’ve never seen so many flags on one play, so everybody was on the same page there.”

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It’s a frustrating rule, but also one that’s not going away. It’s been tweaked as much as it can be tweaked and there will be more tweaking and likely more player safety rules.

Ferentz’s tone reflected that.

“It’s a really tough play to officiate. I think there’s a lot of interpretation in there,” Ferentz said. “It’s all about player safety, which I think everybody supports, and coaches and players alike, but there are tough things about the play.”

One thing to remember, there’s much more to it than helmet-to-helmet. If a defender hits an offensive player anywhere with the crown of his helmet, there’s a good chance it will be targeting.

Forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder is going to draw a flag. Without hearing an explanation from the league, this probably is where Jones got in trouble.

He did hit with his shoulder pads, at least it looked like it.

“It kind of looked like it was more like a shoulder pad, and I thought Amani was trying to get out of the way, but maybe as much as anything it was a really loud hit,” Ferentz said. “If you were at the stadium, it sounded like a shotgun going off, pads hitting pads really.”

Yes, it sure does sound like Ferentz sent a tape to the league and asked for an explanation.

“It’s a tough call,” he said. “It’s a bang-bang thing. Appreciate the fact that at least now it’s reviewed, so at least there are more eyes getting on it and more conversation, but nobody is going to be 100 percent in agreement all the time.”

The replay shows Jones did hit Minnesota wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell with his shoulder. The call stood up on review, presumably because Autman-Bell was deemed a defenseless player and it was a high hit, around the upper chest.

In the rule, there are 10 different definitions on “defenseless player,” including a player who is on the ground, a player who receives a blindside block and a player who is obviously out of the play.

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All of the language in the rule basically says “guilty until ... nah, just guilty.” The one bit of language added this season shows that clearly. “When in question, a player is defenseless.”

This all sounds like the tricky part, doesn’t it? But the really tricky part is defensive players trying to gauge their speed and approach and, for lack of a better word, their target on a tackle.

In this case, Jones was in coverage and the throw guided Autman-Bell into the wood chipper. Maybe if Jones went lower and didn’t “launch” or “crouch” and unfurl into the hit, he could’ve avoided a penalty.

The ball fell incomplete. Everyone got off the turf, that was the big positive.

Really, there wasn’t a ton Jones could’ve done to avoid this.

“If you try to make a play and you hesitate at the last moment, that’s when you’re going to get hurt or you’re going to hurt someone else,” safety Jake Gervase said. “You’re not going full-go and that’s when things get hard. It’s tough. He was just trying to make a play, the refs saw it and stood behind the call. You can’t do much about it. You have to learn from it and hope it doesn’t happen again.”

The basic message from coaches is to stay aggressive. Yet, football is changing. Ferentz has been engaged in a season-long complaint about cut blocks on the second level. That rule has become more enforced because of player safety. And you know targeting isn’t going away.

The game was invented 150 years ago. These are the rules now and unless a team is bent on handing out 15-yard penalties and enjoys ejections, it helps to actually know what the rule is.

What it is boils to this: “When in question, it is a foul.” Also, “when in question, a player is defenseless.”

There likely will be more rules that tie to player safety. Violence in the game is being targeted. Defenses, the players and coaches, know they will have to live with the consequences, because they’re not going to tiptoe around making a tackle that could mean everything in a game.

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“We’ll live with it,” Ferentz said. “It’s just part of football this day and age.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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