Three Key Plays: Texas State at South Alabama

Texas State dropped another game in the fourth quarter, allowing 25 unanswered points in the final 21 minutes of play and losing to South Alabama 41-31. The loss is the latest heartbreaker for a team that needs a win in one of these games to prove they can finish. We isolated three plays that were of great interest to us. Let’s take a look at them together, like a family that doesn’t speak to each other. So like a family.

Before we start, the intent here isn’t to replay the game or suggest a different outcome. If you took every game Saturday that was contested into the fourth quarter you’d be able to nitpick plays here or there that might’ve make a difference in the outcome. We found a couple of interesting refereeing/video review decisions. In the interest of full disclosure, video review cost South Alabama what we thought was a reception on the Texas State sideline. Officials make mistakes; it’s part of the game. It’s a tough job, in a game that moves faster than ever. But we write blog posts and eat Cheezits, and we’re all out of Cheezits.

Let us begin.

3rd and 2

A little context and a little situational football here. Texas State starting quarterback Willie Jones left the game with an injury three or four plays before this third down. True freshman Tyler Vitt came into the game in relief, and the ‘Cats converted a 3rd and six. Two runs later the Bobcats faced a third and two, just inside South Alabama territory at the 49.

Texas State is up 31-16, and they are in control. One the previous series, they went up by fifteen, and the Jaguars answered with a three and out. With just over eight minutes left in the third quarter, your starting quarterback questionable to return and facing a third and short, it’s time to press your boot on South Alabama’s throat.

Can you get two yards? It’s a question every offense in the country must ask itself. When you need to convert short yardage, can you lineup and rush for it? The answer to that question usually depends on whether you can win up front. It’s a simple question but it also strikes at the heart of your program and its culture. Are you a physical football team? The more physical football team typically wins.

My issue, generally, with Texas State’s offense is they are too cute. They are the bad kind of spread team, the type, like Texas A&M under Kevin Sumlin or Chad Morris SMU teams for example, that, for whatever reason, couldn’t run downhill. They can’t seal a game and work clock and impose their will. Can you get two yards?

The Bobcats come out in their spread set; they run a scheme that was their go-to on third and short, play action with what is a “base” route set to the field side (slot runs and out, the wide man or “X” clears out by running a go). The running back’s action shows us this isn’t an RPO; he peels off quickly to pick up a rusher. He’s not getting the ball.

Coaches probably taught Vitt that when he gets man keys, as he does here, he’s going to throw the out route. Its pitch and catch, but as we see, the defense gets a say.

The corner is Jalen Thompson, he’s in man on the X, but he’s also got great situational awareness. He’s seen the Bobcats do this before on third and short and instead of opening up his hips to run with his man, he presses the X, reads Vitt’s eyes and squats. It’s a great play.

"On the last drive and the previous drive before that, they kept running a slide out on third and five. Coach told me to be a ballplayer. I saw the quarterback looking, and I jumped it" Thompson said afterward. He gets help from Vitt and the throw. Vitt misses on the inside of the plate. If you’re going to miss on an out route, you want to miss either high or to the boundary. Thompson undercuts the route, and the Jags are on their way to scoring 25 unanswered.

Thompson was a “ballplayer” and understanding situational football. He’s seen Texas State run the same route in the same situation before; he understands a couple of things. Thompson has help from the safety over the top. He also knows Vitt probably isn’t going to throw the vertical route on third and short.

Vitt’s throwing the out route, Thompson’s seen this movie before and he undercuts it. The issue is and going back to the base question, can you rush for two yards when you need it? Why put your freshman quarterback in the situation to make that throw if you can? Why add the extra variables? Maybe Texas State doesn’t like the answer to that question.

Block Below the Waist

Here’s a critical play that cost Texas State a first down inside the red zone. It’s first and ten from the South Alabama 38 yard line, Texas State leads 31-26. Anthony Taylor rips off a 25 yard run down to the Jaguar 13, but officials call guard David Tachie for an illegal block below the waist.

Blocking below the waist is legal for down linemen, inside the tackle box and so long as the block initiates to the front of the defender (the rules describe this as between “10 o’clock and 2 o’clock” forward of the player being blocked) and the block may occur as long as the ball is inside the tackle box. Officials define the tackle box or “low blocking zone” as the area from the outside shoulders of the offensive tackles or seven yards in either direction from the center and extending five yards in either direction from the neutral zone.

Here the block initiates inside the tackle box, from the front of the defender, and Taylor/the ball are still inside the box once the block occurs. This play ends up as a fifteen-yard penalty, costing the Bobcats 38 yards in field position and a great scoring opportunity.

Targeting

Does anyone know what targeting is? It’s incredibly subjective, and while we dislike it, the game cannot survive unless safety measures are taken to prevent head injuries.

Two plays after the illegal block call on Tachie, Willie Jones finds T.J. Bedford for thirteen yards. Darrian Mills hits Bedford from behind making a tackle and upending the receiver. The referee, based on the point of emphasis in the rules, throws a flag and calls targeting.

Here’s the play.

Targeting in this instance, where there is no contact with the crown of the helmet, requires two things 1) a defenseless receiver and 2) targeting. The NCAA never got the memo on not defining a term with that term, but they do provide guidance as to what targeting is. Here is the non-exhaustive list of targeting actions:

So we need really need two targeting elements, forcible contact and that contact must be to the head or neck area. Bullet points number two and three apply to this play. Now we need a defenseless player. Here’s the definition or guidance as to what constitutes a defenseless player.

The second bullet point speaks to Bedfords position as he’s completing the catch. Where this gets less murky is with the point of emphasis officials are working under. The default is, if there is a question, it’s targeting. It becomes a near presumption.

The official on the field rightly throws the flag. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s the instruction from the manual. Now, if you miss the old rock’em sock’em days and today's candy ass rules aren’t your brand of beer, sorry, this is the way the game is going. The bad news is it’s going to get worse for you if you hold this opinion.

As to this play, Mills “launches” as Bedford makes the turn from the reception. The contact is almost instantaneous. Mills right shoulder goes into the head or neck of Bedford. Those actions meet the clear definition of targeting.

What’s curious is the replay review. Officials checked the play, as officials review all targeting calls. On the review level, the official in the booth has three options, 1) confirm the on-field ruling 2) you can find that the review merits a reversal, i.e. that there is indisputable video evidence that the call on the field was erroneous, or 3) you can spit the baby. In other words, you can find that there is no “indisputable” aka conclusive video evidence to reverse the on-field ruling, you say the ruling stands.

Instant Replay.png

So, if the default is that any contact to the head of a defenseless player is targeting, you would have to find that either or both of those criteria weren’t met to reverse the ruling. Either Bedford wasn’t defenseless, usually interpreted as having become a ball carrier and able to move to protect himself or that the contact with the shoulder wasn’t to the neck or head or wasn’t forcible. This looked to satisfy both criteria, the contact was to the head or neck and the force send Bedford ass over tea kettle.

Also the rules require a brief description as to why the play is reversed or at least that’s the guideline. The official did not offer a description, brief or not.

This cost the Bobcats a first down and that’s a big deal, but the bigger deal is that we’re left to wonder why the reversal? As a caveat, I hate the suspension portion. I understand it, but I hate it. If Mills is found to have targeted in this instance, he takes a long slow walk to the locker room and then has to sit next week for a half against Alabama State. The ramification can play a role in the interpretation.

Why can’t the suspension only come into play if a player is a repeat offender? Or stiffen the penalty for to a full game for players on a second or third strike. Keep the fifteen-yard walk-off but eliminate the long slow walk to the locker room unless it's needed.

Back to Bedford, Mills, and whatever happened on Saturday night in Mobile. We don’t know why the replay official reversed this call. What did he see in the video review, which we presume are the same angles we saw, that was indisputable evidence that the collision wasn’t with the shoulder to the head, or forcible, or that Bedford wasn’t defenseless?

Let’s crawl out of the weeds with this, I watched a ton of football on Saturday, and I saw easily half a dozen targeting fouls called. There is little rhyme or reason to the subjective determinations from the booth. Officials on the field need to protect players. So does the replay booth. Coaches have to retrain players but retrain them to a standard.

If the game is going to survive, and yes, that’s what’s at stake, then defenders have to learn that anything above the shoulders is off limits. But officials, need to set a clear standard and allow flexibility on the punitive measures.

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