In last weekend’s incredibly entertaining Saturday of college football, there were two hits that received unbelievable and rather irrational reactions by fans and commentators alike.
The first was in the SEC Championship game between #3 Georgia and #2 Alabama. Alabama had intercepted a pass from Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. Alabama defensive lineman Quinton Dial leveled Murray while blocking on the interception return. No flag was thrown, and Alabama was able to kick a field goal before halftime and take a 10-7 lead into the locker room.
There were instant reactions from fans in the stadium, Twitter, and various blogs and opinion pieces calling for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Alabama for the block.
I can’t understand why there was such an uproar calling for a personal foul. Murray was less than five yards from where the tackle would be made, and he was at the proper pursuit angle to make a tackle if one was not made by another defender. Once a turnover occurs, the offense becomes the defense. Everyone is fair game. The block did not happen forty yards from the play, and it was (or could have been) significant to the return. Defenders are used to avoiding hitting the quarterback when they are pass-rushing and the ball has been thrown, but once an interception is thrown, the focus of the play changes. Defenders block for the return and the quarterback can still tackle whoever intercepts him. The quarterback is no longer in a defenseless position after an interception, and if he acts like he is, then there is a problem. If Murray didn’t want to get hit, then he shouldn’t have been near the play.
There’s another thing: look at the mechanics of the hit itself. Everything about the hit was perfectly legal. Dial led with a forearm and the shoulder, his knees were bent, his head was up, and his back was at around a 60° angle to the field. Murray’s head snapped back from the hit, but it wasn’t a hit directly to his head. Dial didn’t come out of nowhere; he was out in front of Murray. Yes, the hit was violent, but football is a violent game. According to the Alabama roster, Dial is 6”4’, and 304 pounds. Murray is 6”1’, and 210 pounds. Force equals mass times acceleration. Murray was basically a VW Beetle in neutral getting in a head-on crash with Dial, who was a Ford F-350 going fifty miles per hour. The truck is going to win every time, regardless of the angle of impact. There are some who say that you can’t hit a quarterback like that, but in this case Aaron Murray wasn’t a quarterback; he was a defensive player who was a threat to make a tackle on a ball carrier. End of story.
The second hit was penalized on the field, but unlike the Aaron Murray hit, it had no effect on the final outcome of the game. In the Big 10 Championship game featuring Nebraska and Wisconsin, Nebraska was trailing 49-10 on the opening series of the 3rd quarter. Nebraska completed a pass on a crossing route, receiver Jamal Turner turned and continued to run up the sideline, and receiver Kenny Bell de-cleated Wisconsin defensive back Devin Smith and enabled Turner to cut back and score on the play. This was the kind of block that is usually seen on punt returns, not pass receptions. A flag was thrown, and the play was called back. Again, Nebraska was trailing by 39 points at this moment in the game, but you don’t know what may have transpired following the play if the touchdown hadn’t been called back.
In this case, the hit was square on the defender, and he was completely parallel with the ground. Bell didn’t even put his full weight into the hit. This wasn’t a case of a blocker launching his own body into a defender. Bell hit him with a shoulder and a forearm, and his feet didn’t leave the ground. The hit was square to the numbers, and the Smith wasn’t looking to avoid being blocked; he was focused on the receiver running up the sideline, but that’s not the fault of Bell or any blocker for that matter. Defenders are taught to have their head on a swivel to avoid this very situation, and Smith didn’t.
One of the great things about football is that there are no rules about how hard you can hit someone. There are plenty of rules about where, when, and how you can hit someone, but there is nothing about the force of the hit itself. It really doesn’t really matter what position you play; there is no completely safe place on a football field, and it should stay that way. You can’t start chipping away at what blockers are allowed to do and to whom they are allowed to do it.
You can’t legislate away all the risk out of the game of football. As long as there are great athletes playing at full speed, there will be risk of injury in sports. Let the players play.