Clemson orange, Alabama crimson and North Dakota State green made for a colorful weekend. But yellow best captured college football’s opening statement.
As in penalty flags for the taunting and targeting.
The alliterative offenses got plenty of camera and discussion time and will as long as Johnny Manziel doesn’t play nice, and until defenders adjust to a new reality.
For Johnny Football, it’s become clear he’s broken a mold that’s been created perhaps for an easy narrative: a character off the field, all business on.
No alter ego exists. Manziel brings to the gridiron that same dynamic and reckless personality that spun him through the news cycles throughout his post-Heisman winning season as Texas A&M’s quarterback.
How often did we hear about Manziel needing to return to the stadium, the natural habitat where he could leave behind his offseason issues?
Instead, Manziel brought along the outside environment during his five series against Rice, including what appeared to be mimed autograph signing in a “did he just do that?” moment.
Eventually, a scoreboard point brought the taunting flag, and Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin had seen enough. Manziel didn’t return to the game because of his antics.
Sumlin’s message — to Manziel on the sideline and publicly afterward — was spot-on.
“He’s going to deal with that every week with people chirping,” he said. “That’s not OK.”
It’s not, not because Manziel might offend some sensibilities about acceptable football decorum, but because of a more tangible consequence.
A flag will cost his team in more meaningful games. Taunting among players is a constant during games, and Sumlin knows Manziel must now take the grief without returning the favor.
No doubt Manziel could be a target, and maybe to some SEC defender, in a way that would be worth the ejection.
The Aggies lost a player, cornerback Deshazor Everett, in Saturday’s game for targeting. He was one of several players across the country ejected for the game for targeting a defenseless player.
In this case, Everett launched high and rammed his shoulder into a Rice receiver who had taken two steps after a ball sailed through his hands for an incompletion.
Another player ejected for targeting, Oregon cornerback Terrance Mitchell, brought a different application of the rule.
An opposing quarterback had started a slide when Mitchell arrived, shooting low, leading with his helmet and colliding with the quarterback’s head.
These are the hits college football is attempting to eliminate for safety, and they were the right calls. Still, getting consistency with the targeting call will be a work in progress. Same for the players, who have to adjust their instincts when it comes to approaching contact.
“We’ve practiced how to hit,” Missouri senior linebacker Donovan Bonner said. “But you’re going at full speed, full pace, it’s difficult to change.”
The toughest part for Bonner is the receiver coming over the middle. Blowing up the player could now mean a flag and an ejection, which is what happened to A&M’s Everett.
The targeting penalty isn’t new. The ejection is. But there’s confusion here because of the challenge.
The penalty can’t be challenged, but coaches are allowed to challenge the ejection. That’s saying there’s a degree of severity to the hit — hard enough to receive the 15-yard flag, but not enough to lose playing time, which basically suggests there shouldn’t have been a penalty in the first place.
Mike Pereira, former NFL vice president of officiating and Fox Sports’ resident officiating expert, said in a blog that the college game is going to have trouble getting targeting and ejection right.
“If anything, the opening week proved to me that this new enforcement misses the target,” Pereira wrote in a blog. “I would have left enforcement the way it was — a 15-yard personal foul. Period.”
But for all the uncertainty by defenders and confusion for officials, making football safer is the right direction. Big hits get my cheers, but I’ve never seen the glory in a defender crushing somebody unprepared for the contact like a tackling dummy.
College football’s best defensive teams swarm, get position and wrap up in the open field. There aren’t enough of them.