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Pac-12 teams adjust to tougher rules on secondaries

WSU’s Casey Locker (22) delivers a hard hit to OSU’s Markus Wheaton. Locker was flagged for unnecessary roughness on the play. (Associated Press)
WSU’s Casey Locker (22) delivers a hard hit to OSU’s Markus Wheaton. Locker was flagged for unnecessary roughness on the play. (Associated Press)

PULLMAN – A receiver comes over the middle. The ball and a safety arrive at nearly the same time. Contact is made, the receiver’s head snaps back, the ball flies free. Clean hit or penalty?

More often than not this season, seemingly, the flags have flown.

The idea is to protect a defenseless player, making sure they are not hit above the shoulders or hit by a player leading with his helmet. In theory, it’s a rule built to guard everyone’s safety. In practice, it’s led to some horrendous calls.

“It’s almost like when there’s a big hit in the secondary there’s a flag,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “Some of it just looks like football to me.”

Recently, in a small sampling of three games:

• Washington State’s Casey Locker was flagged for a hit above the shoulders against Oregon State when replays indicated the contact was made with the upper arm.

• Washington’s Nate Fellner was flagged for the same thing on a play in which he dislocated the shoulder of Arizona’s Dan Buckner. “That looked like a very clean hit to us,” Arizona interim coach Tim Kish said. “That’s just a good, hard hit that maybe they misinterpreted as helmet-to-helmet or something, I don’t know. I’m really not sure exactly how they called that play.”

• USC’s T.J. McDonald was flagged and ultimately suspended for a collision with Stanford’s Chris Owusu. That drew the following from Trojans coach Lane Kiffin: “He made a bang-bang play and his intent was not to hurt the receiver or launch his body at the receiver or lead with his helmet. If you watch the hit in real time, we feel it is impossible to competitively play that play any differently.”

And that’s the rub right now. Coaches are trying to figure out how to handle the hits and the ensuing rash of flags.

WSU coach Paul Wulff said Tuesday he had received a letter last week from the conference concerning blows Locker delivered the previous two games – one on Owusu that was deemed not a penalty and one against Oregon State that was. The conference informed Wulff it agreed with both calls and basically said Locker was on its radar.

“You don’t want to error on (the side of) caution, because you don’t want caution in football,” Wulff said. “(But) we have to teach a little differently and coach them to go low.”

Although Wulff said he’s seen lower hits result in broken legs and ankles, he’s resigned to the fact changes have to be made.

“This rule has become a big emphasis,” he said.

It seems Wulff and the other Pac-12 coaches just want clarity and consistency.

“It’s difficult for everybody involved,” said UCLA’s Rick Neuheisel, adding he understands what the rule makers and officials want to accomplish. “It’s a difficult call and we’re all going to have to do our best to live with it until they decide there’s a better way.”

“The officials have done a great job this season of saying, ‘Hey, if it’s close we have to call it, because we’re trying to stem a trend,’ “ Stanford coach David Shaw said. “We’re trying to keep football the way that it is.

“If we have too many head injuries, who knows what could happen down the road for the sport of football?”

Four from the Pac-12

1. Utah won its first conference game last Saturday, jumping out to a 24-0 first-half lead and coasting to a 27-8 victory over Oregon State. The Utes gave OSU a huge dose of John White (35 carries for 205 yards) and turned loose the front seven (six sacks) in a bit different look than they had shown before. “We went through some significant changes as a far as the game plan and our approach,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “That’s how it is. That’s what you get paid for as a coach. You try to adapt to your personnel.”

2. Now that Washington has earned six wins, the Huskies are eligible for one of the Pac-12’s seven postseason bowl berths. That’s a bit of a relief for coach Steve Sarkisian. “As you’re trying to get to bowl eligibility with where we are as a program, at times it can become a stressful feeling,” he said. “You have so much to lose if you don’t win.” UW hosts No. 6 Oregon on Saturday in the renewal of their rivalry.

3. Speaking of the Ducks-Huskies rivalry, there’s a bit more to it this week as it will also be the final game at Husky Stadium before a 22-month facelift. Even usually tight-lipped Oregon coach Chip Kelly acknowledged the feud this week with his players. “We talked about it just because of the atmosphere we’re going to go into,” Kelly said. “Our guys are excited about it. This is what you want to play for. We love going into venues like Husky Stadium (and) the fact it’s the last game in it, we know the Washington fans will be jacked up.” For Kelly, that’s a lot on something not X-and-O-related.

4. In this week’s Pac-12 media release there’s a small section on the Lott Impact Trophy, emblematic of the nation’s best safety. Three conference players are among the 20 quarterfinalists for the award, which, according to its literature, recognizes “athletic performance and the personal character attributes of the player.” One of the three is USC’s T.J. McDonald, suspended by the conference Monday evening for his high hit on Stanford’s Chris Owusu in the Trojans’ loss Saturday night. In its release, the conference said it was something USC and McDonald had been warned about. McDonald will sit out the first half of USC’s game at Colorado on Friday.