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Column: Why officiating is like the weather

When it rains, it pours. And sometimes it’s just luck. 

Nebraska v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Wow - what a weekend. In some ways it still feels surreal that we’ve got Big Ten football back. In others, it feels like we haven’t skipped a beat.

However, in one very painful moment, it felt like the Buckeyes’ last game — the College Football Playoff semi-final — was just yesterday. That moment came when FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt commented on the targeting call against Shaun Wade that came in the game against Clemson last December. My insides boiled and I felt hot as I thought back to that moment when Wade was ejected from the game on what I still maintain (and Klatt agreed) was a garbage targeting call.

The thing is, though, that targeting was a theme of the game Saturday. In all, Nebraska finished with eight penalties for 90 yards (to Ohio State’s three for 14). The zebras called out the Huskers for targeting on three occasions Saturday, though one of the calls was negated after review. In the end, cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt and safety Deontai Williams got ejected within minutes of one another.

It would be tough for Nebraska faithful to argue that the two ejections affected the outcome of the game. When the refs ejected Taylor-Britt, the Buckeyes were up 38-17 and on a drive that ultimately ended in a fumble. Williams’ ejection came with the same score in the fourth quarter when the game was well in hand for Ohio State.

However, Klatt certainly made his thoughts clear on what he thought about the targeting calls and, more generally, the rule.

“That is a poor call and now Nebraska’s secondary is decimated, not only for this game, but the first half of next week’s game,” Klatt said. “That is a poor call and a bad rule in the college football landscape.”

Let’s back up. Broadly, officiating is something no one wants to determine the outcome of a game. In multi-score wins like we saw Saturday in Columbus, it’s hard to say officiating determines the result of a game, so even bad officiating can get swept under the rug to a degree. However, in narrow games like, for instance, Indiana’s overtime win over Penn State, officiating is a major factor in the outcome.

In many ways, officiating is like the weather. Bad officials are bad and good officials are good, and, in theory, both these scenarios should affect both teams equally like rain or wind or lightning delays might. We’ve all seen the games where officials “let them play” and don’t call much on either side, and other games in which refs call seemingly every ticky-tack pass interference opportunity, regardless of team. As frustrating as it is, if bad officials call pass interference wrong, it’s not that big of a deal if they call it equally bad on both sides.

However, there are those unfortunate times when officials are biased (though I would argue those times are less frequent than fans would like to believe), or just plain inconsistent. These scenarios can mean tough luck for one team — like, in the weather analogy, for the team that has to kick a field goal against a stiff wind to win the game.

Let’s also take a moment to acknowledge that officiating is hard. Us as lay fans certainly couldn’t do it, and even the best officials in the world are still not right all the time. That’s why crews are large, and that’s why replay is a thing.

In the case of personal fouls, one of the challenges with officiating is that it’s hard to determine intent, which is why rules have drifted toward pure objectivity with notably mixed results.

Take the facemask rule, for instance. There are definitely times when you see a facemask that’s clearly incidental, but the line that defines “intentional” from “incidental” is blurry. That’s why officials at both the collegiate and professional have done away with the five-yard incidental facemask penalty in favor only of the 15-yard personal foul penalty (note that both leagues acknowledge that there may be incidental contact, like grasping and releasing, which does not result in a call, but that elements like twisting and turning will cost the offending team the full 15 yards).

The elements of targeting, as we heard Saturday, are intended to be pretty darn clear, including forcible contact with the crown of the helmet to the head or neck area. That’s why one of the things I appreciate about the targeting rule is the automatic review. It means that officials put player safety first, but provide the opportunity to fix mistakes. After all, remember the awful early days of the targeting rule when the penalty was still enforced even if the call was overturned?

As a side bar, you might wonder why all calls aren’t reviewable, and the response is obvious: because games would go for six hours. Both the NFL and NCAA, every year, seek ways to make the game move faster, both for TV contracts and for flow, especially since not everyone can be Wisconsin and just run every play and be done in two hours.

Back to targeting. The fact is the penalty for targeting, obviously, goes beyond yardage because of the dangers of helmet-to-helmet contact. That’s why the reviews are so important. Again, I’m biased, but it feels apparent that Wade’s ejection against Clemson could have affected the outcome of the game. It would have been worth even an additional (second) review to ensure officials got it right.

Perhaps a way to make these calls better would be that additional review that takes the call out of the hands of the officials present at the game. Just as the NFL’s instant review process is centralized in New York, college officials could look to a central review authority to specifically evaluate targeting plays after the initial ejection. At worst, it would at least reinstate players before they had to sit out another half. with a prompt review at the broader NCAA level, with the opportunity for immediate reinstatement by offending players. We see refs get reprimanded for bad calls after the fact, but given the stakes for targeting, it seems worth the extra work to get players back in the game while the game is actually happening.

On the note of targeting generally, there are definitely a lot of folks who are upset about the targeting rule itself, who complain about the intent and say things like “It’s football! Sometimes you can’t help but get hit in the head!” They get especially upset when plays, like those that led to the Nebraska ejections Saturday, get called, citing that it was clear the Nebraska players didn’t mean any harm.

The challenge there is that helmet-to-helmet contact is just as damaging whether it was intended or not. Players need to hold themselves accountable and coaches need to be held accountable for teaching proper technique. Referees call out this contact every time to root out the issue and stamp it from the game entirely because, like it or not, that’s a key part of ensuring the longevity of the game we love.