The Ohio Valley Conference office late Monday afternoon ruled the hit Gamecocks sophomore safety Brandon Bender put on Tennessee Tech senior receiver Zack Ziegler Saturday was targeting.
It means the Gamecocks’ leading tackler must sit out the first half of this week’s game at Austin Peay, giving junior Jamaal Johnson of Piedmont his first career start.
Bender delivered the hit on Ziegler on an incomplete pass early in the third quarter of the Gamecocks’ 34-14 win. In real time, he came back to Ziegler and, in Clark’s view, hit the receiver high on the shoulder pads.
No penalty was called on the field and the decision on Bender was made following a review by a three-member national panel tasked with ruling on such plays.
“That’s the part that bothers me -- big time,” Clark said.
He was told by OVC coordinator of football officials Jim Jackson the panel’s decision that a targeting foul should have been called was unanimous. Jackson said his view of the play looked to be a foul.
Had the targeting penalty been called on the field, Bender would have been disqualified for the remainder of the Tech game and the first half of the next.
“I’m not a big fan of the whole rule, but that was called,” Clark said. “I guess the toughest thing for us (is) when something’s not called on the field and called at a later juncture. That’s just not something I’m a big fan of.”
Ziegler was tended to on the field and eventually left for the locker room. Tech coach Watson Brown, a former JSU assistant coach, said Tuesday it was “highly questionable” whether the receiver would play this week at No. 2 ranked Eastern Illinois.
Ziegler was the second Tech receiver knocked out of the lineup for what Brown called “illegal plays” in as many weeks. Cody Matthews suffered his second concussion of the season after a hit by Eastern Kentucky second Brandon Stanley that reportedly broke Matthews’ helmet.
“All I can say to that would be you do something illegal you’ve got to be penalized for it,” Brown said. “Too bad the kid wasn’t penalized for it during the game. I can’t understand how that one could’ve been missed.
“When you do those things just as long as the team or the kid is penalized that’s all we can do. I don’t think anybody means to go out trying to hurt somebody to knock them out, but I lost my two best receivers two weeks in a row on targeting calls, and that’s just too bad.”
There have been several big hits in JSU games this year – with Gamecocks on the giving and receiving ends -- but Bender was the first player to be disciplined.
Safety Pierre Warren’s big hit on Tennessee-Martin receiver Chris Thompson last month got a look, but no action was taken. JSU receiver Markis Merrill took a shot from North Alabama linebacker Brion James in September that showed no evidence that warranted a penalty.
Four games involving OVC teams have had targeting action this year, three of which involved an OVC player facing disqualification.
In addition to Bender and Stanley, EIU cornerback Pete Houlihan was called for targeting in the first half against Northern Illinois. A Jackson State player was ejected in the first half of a game with Tennessee State.
“We visited every OVC school this spring to discuss the need to change player behavior and play lower,” Jackson said. “It is a very difficult balance between player safety and the notion we may eject a player that doesn’t deserve it.
“The directive from the (NCAA Football) Rules Committee is that if the play looks like targeting, call it and eject the player. Replay may overturn the ejection if targeting did not occur, but we don’t have replay in the OVC. Our staff has been thoroughly trained on these plays and understands the philosophy.”
Jackson said there was a targeting foul called once every eight games throughout the FCS and FBS last year. Through Week 9 this season, a targeting foul has been called once every 10 games in the FBS and once every 13 games in the FCS.
“Clearly, the change in the penalty has had the desired effect on the game and player behavior has changed,” he said. “It is a tribute to the coaches in the OVC that we have had so few instances of this foul in 2013.”
Clark said the coaching staff has talked to the players about “making a tackle and not a hit,” and being sure they aim their approach at the shoulder pads and below.
The first-year head coach said he doesn’t believe Monday’s action will have any negative impact on the way Bender plays his position going forward. The defensive back goes into the weekend with 65 tackles, five pass break-ups and two forced fumbles.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.