By KOLBY PAXTON
When Vincent Smith’s helmet finally came to rest, and Mike Tirico managed to catch his breath, the legend of Jadeveon Clowney had officially reached its own fever pitch.
Few will ever remember the previous play, a fake punt with a little more than eight minutes to go. The Michigan ball carrier got close to the sticks, close enough for a measurement, but upon extending the chain, it was clear that the South Carolina defense had stopped the Wolverines several inches short of the first down.
Only, it hadn’t. Inexplicably, Conference USA officials elected to move the chains and give Big Blue a fresh set of downs.
Clowney, a 6-5, 275-pound freak of nature, merely exacted justice on the following play, coming untouched through the B-gap and demolishing Smith. It was, by all accounts a text book form tackle; crown up, eyes forward, mask to chest. Clowney arrived at the back virtually simultaneously with the football, jarring it free, and plucking it up, himself.
The play remained perched atop ESPN’s Best of the Best before eventually earning an ESPY for Best Play of the Year. It also turned the Outback Bowl on its ear, as South Carolina — trailing 22-21 at the time — rallied to win in the waning seconds.
Now hear this: Were it up to ACC officiating supervisor Doug Rhoads or Pac-12 officiating consultant Mike Pereira, the same play in 2013 would result in a Clowney ejection.
That’s because of insanely moronic legislation from the NCAA that requires the very same oft-inept officials that just moments earlier missed a call that was sitting completely still, to interpret the intent of a defender at full speed, and to run those players deemed to have malicious intent at the jerk of a knee.
Despite the fact that Clowney planted his face in Smith’s shoulder pads, he would have been tossed because — are you ready for this? — he arrived nanoseconds before the hand-off, and the poor Michigan running back was, at that moment, “defenseless.”
That means, in order for South Carolina to avoid losing its best player — and likely the game — Clowney, upon realizing that he was coming scot-free, and upon recognizing that Devon Gardner was about to hand the ball to Smith on a power play being run directly at him, would have had to slam on the breaks, wait for Smith to take the hand off, and hope to catch him falling backwards.
Nevermind the obvious physical impossibility of that. Pereira and Rhoads never played in college — which also sheds some light on how effectively they even managed to play in high school. They have no idea that you can’t expect Clowney to do anything other than what he did, because they have no idea what it feels like to be Clowney — or a slow, short, 230-pound version of me, for that matter. And they share that disposition with NCAA rule-makers.
Get ready. A player on your favorite team is going to be ejected this fall. Tossed. Gone. All because a middle-aged referee in way over his head has deemed that said player should have — on the other side of the 30 yards that he just covered in three seconds — contorted himself in a different way, recalibrated, while moving the body of bengal tiger at the speed of a gazelle, in order to avoid touching the wrong spot on a moving target.
Better yet, it won’t even take an obvious collision in order for a player to subject himself to such snap judgment. In addition to the no-no that is “lowering the crown of the helmet” and the highly debatable “defenseless player” rule, check out this beauty: “Players may be ejected for leading with helmet, forearm, fist, hand or elbow into the head or neck area.”
In essence, unless a player executes a flying judo kick to the facemask — an act that would constitute an unnecessary roughness penalty, but actually could not result in an ejection — he may not, by the letter of the rule, touch an opponent anywhere above the shoulder pads.
Think about that. How ambiguous is that?
Subjective enough that it has already become quite clear that conferences are going to legislate the rule individually. Clowney is tossed in the ACC. He’s tossed in the Pac-12. But, according to Steve Shaw, the SEC’s head of officials, the hit was clean and Clowney would be good to go.
So, the SEC is going to let the boys play, because of course it is, but what happens when top-ranked Alabama is on the ropes versus two-loss Florida in the SEC Championship? You don’t think the Gators become just a little too malicious all of a sudden? Really?
Better question: The National Championship game will not be officiated by referees from either participant’s league. That means that Alabama or Georgia or Florida or South Carolina may very well run into a group of trigger happy ACC officials in the most important game of the season — a season during which physical play has been rewarded, only suddenly it’s outlawed. Every conference in the country not called the SEC is sick and tired of hearing about those three letters, and now they can do something about it — even if they could otherwise do nothing about it.
Didn’t you wonder why the Muschamps and Bielemas and Sabans of the world were a singular opposing voice at SEC Media Days, while no other coaches from any other conferences had anything — anything at all — to say about the new ejection rule?
They know this thing is going to get messy.