Gorch on the Porch: NFHS needs to fix targeting penalty rule

Photo by Robb QuinnMichigan City's Zachary Gault returns an interception for a touchdown at Valparaiso last week.

Far be it from me to criticize an official’s call in any sport, but a couple penalties and the result had me baffled the last couple weeks while covering Michigan City football — and the one last week could have impacted the game.

Let me clarify … I’m not criticizing the referees. After doing a little research, I found out they made the right calls. It’s the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS) rules that I can’t understand.

Last week, the Wolves were up 14-10 and had the ball with around two minutes remaining. After a holding penalty, City had a third down and 16 yards to go as it tried to run some clock. The play was a handoff to Daelon Wren, who ran wide and inexplicably went out of bounds.

Turns out, though, he was targeted after crossing the out of bounds line, resulting in a 15-yard penalty. But you see, in high school football, “targeting” is not an automatic first down. So Wren’s loss of four yards, coupled with the 15-yard penalty, gave the Wolves third-and-5 instead of first-and-10.

If it’s a first down like it should be — targeting and other unsportsmanlike infractions are automatic first downs in college and pro football, and targeting actually gets you ejected from the game — then City runs out the clock and wins the game.

Guess what? I’m not the only person who was wondering why it wasn’t an automatic first down.

“I thought it was a first down,” City head coach Phil Mason said. “But they change these rules all the time.”

Even assistant coach Timothy Gault didn’t get it: “I thought it was automatically a first down, too.”

Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) assistant commissioner in charge of football, Robert Faulkens, confirmed in an email that rule 2-20 (targeting) in the NFHS football rulebook says it is not an automatic first down. Scouring further into the large rulebook, you’ll find out there are only a handful of penalties in high school football that are automatic first downs — roughing the passer, kicker or holder and snapper.

The week before against Chesterton, an unsportsmanlike penalty against the Trojans also resulted in 15 yards, but no first down because the Wolves had 17 yards to go.

My problem is how NFHS officials can’t see the logic in making it an automatic first down and ejection. When I was in high school, I know I would have taken advantage of this mistake in the rules if I just happened to not like some kid on the other side of the ball. If I know it’s second-and-20, for example, then after a play I could target a player just for the heck of it, and only yardage would be run off.

The IHSAA can’t change the rule, but Faulkens needs to bring it up at the next NFHS rules meeting that this illogical snafu needs to be made like the college rule.

• Merrillville (1-3, 1-1) at MICHIGAN CITY (2-2, 1-1)

Friday, 7 p.m., at Ames Field

Series over last 30 years: Merrillville leads 20-3

Skinny: Sure, just like last week the Wolves have only won three games in their history against the opponent. But one of those was last year at Merrillville in a back-and-forth, high-powered 42-35 contest. The Pirates aren’t as good this year, though they did open DAC play with 34-26 win at Crown Point. Last week they lost at Portage by a touchdown. City will look to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss at Valparaiso in which the defense played well and the offense progressively got better in the second half.

Prediction: Michigan City 35, Merrillville 31

• Lake Central (1-3, 0-2) at La PORTE (1-2, 0-1)

Friday, 7 p.m. at Kiwanis Field

Series over last 30 years: La Porte leads 8-6

Skinny: The Slicers bounced back after two straight losses with a nail-biter win at Chesterton. Now they get a slumping LC team at home. The Indians have lost three straight after opening the season with a win at Munster. The last two losses have been to DAC opponents Portage (40-14) and Crown Point (45-0). Needless to say, La Porte should be able to get back over the .500 mark, as long as the offense keeps improving.

Prediction: La Porte 28, Lake Central 7

• NEW PRAIRIE (3-1, 1-0) at Bremen (2-2, 0-2)

Friday, 6:30 p.m., at Bunge Field

Series over last 30 years: Bremen leads 15-13

Skinny: After opening the campaign with a loss at La Porte, the Cougars have been dominant in three consecutive wins, outscoring South Bend Clay, Andrean and South Bend Washington by a combined score of 161-10. Just call New Prairie football the “Incredible Hulk” in recent years because it’s not a good idea to make the Cougars angry. They bounce back big time after losses. Bremen has been a regional contender in recent years, but the Lions didn’t win sectional last year.

Prediction: New Prairie 42, Bremen 28

• SOUTH CENTRAL (3-1, 2-0) at River Forest (1-3, 0-2)

Friday, 7 p.m., at Madden Field

Series over last 30 years: South Central leads 21-14

Skinny: The Satellites have won two straight — both Greater South Shore Conference games — to bounce back from the shutout loss to Culver, and this week’s game at River Forest could result in SC starting off 3-0 in conference play. That hasn’t happened since the Satellites moved into the GSSC for football only. SC has scored 104 points over the last two weeks, so it’s just a matter of the defense holding the Ingots under 30 just to make sure.

Prediction: South Central 34, River Forest 21

• Valparaiso (4-0, 2-0) at CHESTERTON (2-2, 0-2)

Friday, 7 p.m. at Chesterton Field

Series over last 30 years: Valparaiso leads 24-15

Skinny: This would be a perfect week for the Trojans to end their nine-game Duneland Conference losing streak and prevent thoughts of last season creeping into Chesterton fans’ heads. Last year they won the first two non-conference games before losing all seven DAC contests. So far, they’re on the same path after losses to Michigan City and La Porte the last two weeks. Valpo is Chesterton’s main rival, and the Vikings do have multiple injuries. But will that be enough for the Trojans to pull off a win?

Prediction: Valparaiso 20, Chesterton 17

• Downriver (Mich.) at La LUMIERE

Saturday, 1 p.m. at La Lumiere Field

Skinny: Well, it looks like the Lakers are continuing where they left off last season after a decisive 44-8 victory at Grand Valley Christian last Saturday to open defense of their conference title. Laqunn Wilson had an impressive 279 yards rushing and four TDs in the game. Downriver opened its season with a 14-12 victory over Livingston County Homeschool. Don’t bet against the team on a large winning streak — Lakers have won nine straight.

Prediction: La Lumiere 28, Downriver 17

Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at sgorches@thenewsdispatch.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.

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