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Originally published November 1, 2011 at 8:02 PM | Page modified November 2, 2011 at 6:52 PM

Bud Withers

NCAA wants only safe hits, but what is a safe hit?

For all the rugged appeal of football, there is the dark side, the recollection of what Jack Tatum did to Darryl Stingley in an NFL exhibition game in the late 1970s.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

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For all the rugged appeal of football, there is the dark side, the recollection of what Jack Tatum did to Darryl Stingley in an NFL exhibition game in the late 1970s.

It's a violent, even vicious game, a legalized street brawl. But it has to have limitations. You want it that way even if it isn't your son, or brother, or father who's out there at risk.

So one of the primary points of emphasis mandated this year by the NCAA football rules committee has to do with a focus on two rules implemented in 2008: prohibition on leading with the crown (top) of the helmet, and targeting a defenseless player in the head or neck area.

Bravo for the intent of the committee.

Thumbs-down for the application of it.

All over the Pac-12, there have been debatable penalties levied as a result of the 2011 rules emphasis. The last one was a flag on Washington's Nate Fellner on Arizona receiver Dan Buckner on Saturday night.

"That looked like a very clean hit to us," conceded interim 'Zona coach Tim Kish on Tuesday's Pac-12 conference call.

Hours earlier Saturday, in Eugene, WSU safety Casey Locker was tagged for what was clearly a shoulder hit on receiver Justin Hoffman. Still, a flag. Afterward, WSU coach Paul Wulff said Locker was "obviously" a subject of discussion in the Pac-12 office, something he confirmed Tuesday.

"They called me directly (last week) and I got a letter, basically stating that Casey's had some high hits and they're concerned," Wulff said.

Locker had a hit on Stanford's Chris Owusu that knocked him out of the game Oct. 15, and another against Oregon State. The first was deemed proper, the second drew a flag. Wulff said the conference later judged both calls to be correct.

But linebacker Sekope Kaufusi was flagged for such a hit against OSU, which incensed Wulff on the sideline.

It didn't help that referee Michael Batlan clicked on his mike and began his explanation with "After the play ... "

It wasn't after the play, it was the play.

Monday, USC coach Lane Kiffin was fined $10,000 by the league for his post-Stanford outburst on officiating. That included disagreement with a personal foul on safety T.J. McDonald, who has been suspended for the first half of the Colorado game this week. Kiffin went so far as to include in a statement that "We respectfully disagree with the suspension" imposed on McDonald.

"It's almost like when there's a big hit in the secondary, there's a flag," OSU coach Mike Riley said. "Some of it just looks like football to me. I think we're going to have to look at that hard in the offseason."

Amid the debate of whether tackling is a lost art, it appears to me some officials may be more apt to call the high-hit penalty when the tackler doesn't wrap up.

Washington coach Steve Sarkisian acknowledges, correctly, that the officials have a very hard job. But regarding the Fellner hit, he said he didn't want to spend time that could be used on Oregon to worry about a resolution to it.

The point is, what should coaches be instructing defensive players, when the rule is being applied inconsistently?

The issue comes during the Pac-12's first year of an officiating shake-up. I can't purport to have seen the breadth of game tape watched by somebody like the new Pac-12 coordinator of officials, Tony Corrente. But I still see inconsistencies, not only in the aforementioned interpretation.

In the USC-Stanford game, there was a blatant, uncalled hold by Trojans offensive tackle Kevin Graf on USC's final regulation drive. ABC analyst Kirk Herbstreit exclaimed that the official was looking right at it. If USC had succeeded in kicking a field goal on the last play, that's a game-changing no-call, and it kills Stanford's undefeated season and hopes for the national title.

I began Monday trying to get some input from Corrente, not to nitpick calls but to get a sense as to how the league wants the "targeting" call made. And perhaps to clarify the ruling of an incomplete pass on the lunging play by Washington's Michael Hartvigson the other night.

The league said Corrente has been "unavailable."

Meanwhile, there are people paying thousands of dollars for prime seats that might wonder about the philosophy on some of the calls. The new Pac-12 needs to be about more than bubbly stories on new TV contracts and forward-thinking marketing. It could stand to show some transparency in the officiating program.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-12.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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