Notebook: Did officials miss the mark with targeting rule in Notre Dame-MSU game?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly had clearly moved past celebration. The lingering outrage over an unpenalized shot to the head of quarterback Brandon Wimbush, not so much.

And he’s hardly alone.

“It's right now not in a very good place and needs to get fixed,” the Irish head football coach said of the NCAA’s targeting rule during his weekly Tuesday press conference.

Fixed for the players thrown out of games for infractions that seem unintentional and nowhere near the level of textbook targeting. Fixed for seemingly egregious hits like Wimbush sustained Saturday night, in a 38-18 road win at Michigan State, that go unchecked.

This was not called targeting or reviewed.

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) September 24, 2017

And maybe fixed to the point that officiating crews that miss those calls have to deal with real consequences.

“Well, we had the consequence obviously last year against Texas, when they missed the clear targeting against Torii Hunter,” Kelly said of an unpenalized helmet-to-helmet hit in Texas’ 50-47 double-overtime win in the season opener for both teams.

“There were repercussions for that Big 12 replay crew, which was double secret until later in the year, obviously.

“I don't know what, if any, repercussions would be relative to the on-field crew for the ACC or for the Big Ten replay crew (Saturday night), which was supposed to be monitoring that situation. But it was egregious, and there's no other way to look at that kind of hit. ”

The on-field crew for that Texas game, paired with a Big 12 replay crew last Sept. 4, was from the ACC. In fact, six of the members of that crew also worked the ND-MSU game Saturday night at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.

Big 12 supervisor of officials Walt Anderson initially defended the Big 12 replay crew publicly. Hunter suffered a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit from Texas safety DeShone Elliott. The former Irish wide receiver would later say that incident helped coax him toward a Major League Baseball career than one in the NFL.

The targeting rule continues to confound college football players and coaches alike in its fifth year of existence since adding the element of a possible ejection from the game for offenders.

Michigan State outside linebacker Chris Frey was not only spared from ejection during the first quarter of the ND game, he wasn’t penalized at all.

On the play, with the Irish leading 14-7 with 4:34 left in the first quarter, middle linebacker Joe Bachie tripped up Wimbush. As the Irish QB lay on the ground, the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Frey came flying into the frame, head first, and made a helmet-to-helmet hit to the back of Wimbush’s head.

Wimbush got up very slowly and appeared momentarily dazed after he got up. Kelly said he has since sent the play to the ACC office for a review.

““That has no place in the game. Tackling where somebody lowers their head, as you're trying to make a tackle and there's no intention there to target, that's part of the game. And we just can't get that right, and it's extremely frustrating.”

Waiting game over

Twenty years after getting pushed off the Irish football schedule, Miami (Ohio) is finally back.

Saturday’s Notre Dame Stadium matchup (5 p.m. EDT; NBCSN) pairs Kelly against longtime friend and former assistant Chuck Martin, now in his fourth season as head coach of the RedHawks. Martin coached under Kelly for four seasons each at Div. II Grand Valley State (2000-03) and at ND (2010-13).

The only previous meeting between Notre Dame (3-1), ranked 22nd this week in the AP poll, and Miami (2-2) happened 21 seasons before Notre Dame Stadium was even built.

The Irish won that matchup, 46-0, at Cartier Field in 1909.

The RedHawks were supposed to the season-opening Irish opponent in 1997, when Notre Dame Stadium expanded from roughly 59,000 seats to more than 80,000. But before construction was complete, Notre Dame asked Miami to bow out to get a bigger name on the marquee.

As part of that concession, the Irish agreed to play Miami in basketball, home-and-home, in a four-game series. An ironic footnote, the RedHawks ended up beating the Irish the first three games — all by nine points or more —before Notre Dame edged Miami 70-69 in the series finale, Dec. 8, 2001 in Oxford, Ohio.

Wally Szczerbiak, who would go on to a 10-year NBA career, was part of the first RedHawks upset.

Georgia Tech replaced Miami as the football opponent, and almost pulled off the upset, before falling 17-13. In Bob Davie’s first of 60 games as Notre Dame’s head coach the man he would face on the opposing sideline, George O’Leary, was also the man who eventually replaced Davie when he was fired five seasons later.

O’Leary, himself, left Notre Dame after less than a week due to fabrications on his résumé.

Five o’clock shadow

So why does Notre Dame-Miami have such an unconventional start time (5 p.m. EDT) and why did it get bumped from NBC to NBC Sports Network?

Miami (Ohio) was the last team added to the 2017 schedule. And by that time, NBC already had a commitment for this weekend to air Presidents Cup golf. Further complicating the scheduling matrix was a commitment on NBCSN to air the NASCAR Xfinity Series “Use Your Melon. Drive Sober 200” race in Dover, Del.

NBC suggested making the Sept. 30 date a road game, flipping the Miami (Ohio) commitment until later in the season, but that would have given the Irish an unpalatable run of four straight road games.

Personnel matters

Kelly expects to have all four of his top running backs available Saturday for Miami, after starter Josh Adams’ appearance was truncated last Saturday night at Michigan State and reserve Tony Jones Jr. missed the game all together.

Adams experienced ankle stiffness against the Spartans, but still ended up as ND’s leading rusher in the game with 56 yards on nine carries. The nine carries are the second-fewest in a game by the junior over the past two seasons.

“My job this week will be really to monitor the health of the group and making sure that we get them back so they're 100 percent on Saturday,” Kelly said. “I don't want to tax one over the other. I want to make sure that they're all peaking on Saturday.”

Fourth-stringer Deon McIntosh got the most carries of any Irish player on Saturday night. The redshirt freshman finished 35 yards on 12 carries with a TD in his second-ever game action. Junior Dexter Williams had a TD run and scored on a pass reception against MSU. He had 40 yards on eight carries for the nation’s No. 7 rushing offense (293.5 yards per game).

• Freshman safety Jordan Genmark Heath continues to pile up the tackles, primarily on special teams. He has eight so far in four games, the same number as rover/linebacker Asmar Bilal and one more than turnover king/cornerback Shaun Crawford.

Kelly said the 6-1, 220-pound Sweden native, who played high school football in San Diego, could end up moving up the depth chart at safety over the course of the season.

“He's attached to coach (Mike) Elko at the hip at practice,” Kelly said of ND’s defensive coordinator and safeties coach, “so he's learning the safety position.

“As he learns, we want to continue to keep him actively involved in what we're doing. And when I say what we're doing, you know, playing real football, getting him involved in our special teams and tackling and doing the things that can help our football team, because he's a physical kid that can help us.”

Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie (35) trips up Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) as Spartan linebacker Chris Frey launches himself at the Irish QB. Frey made helmet-to-helmet contact, but targeting wasn't called on the play. The Irish won 38-18 Saturday night at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)