If the new NCAA rules for targeting had been in place, that number would have swelled to seven or eight, according to Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carollo. The NCAA's playing rules oversight panel on Thursday approved a new rule that requires the ejection of players flagged for targeting or contacting defenseless opponents above the shoulders. The current targeting penalty includes only a 15-yard penalty. The new policy, which goes into effect for the 2013 season, requires the penalty plus an ejection.
Under new NCAA rules, ejections for targeting a defenseless opponent above the shoulders -- Illinois' Earnest Thomas was the only Big Ten player ejected for that last season -- could become more common.
The ejection for targeting mirrors the one for fighting. Players who commit the foul in the first half miss the remainder of the game, while those who commit the foul in the second half miss the remainder of the game and the first half of the next contest.
"It's a very serious penalty," Carollo told ESPN.com on Thursday. "It's a big change. However, I think it will be a big positive point for the game. When we look back in 3-5 years, I think we're going to say this is a really big moment."
Player safety has become an increasingly bigger point of emphasis for officials in recent years, especially with increased education about the effects of concussions. The Big Ten has led the charge nationally, and while the number of unnecessary roughness penalties in the league has remained about the same, Carollo has seen a slight decrease in helmet-to-helmet targeting fouls.
The hope is that the numbers continue to drop because of the new, stricter policy.
"The impact is not that we're going to throw out a lot of guys," Carollo said. "The impact is we're going to have a lot of coaches and a lot of players adjusting to the rules. It may take a little bit of time, a few months of practice and a few weeks in August, and maybe even a couple games, but I think we'll get some positive results.
"The impact will be positive from the standpoint that players will continue to work hard to lower the target zone and to take the head out of the game."
Carollo and others in his position will spend the coming months working with officials to define targeting as clearly as possible. It can be a tedious process, as there can be helmet-to-helmet contact without obvious targeting, while intent "has nothing to do with it," Carollo said.
Officials will make mistakes -- Carollo has told Big Ten coaches that one out of every 10 high hits called on the field technically was a legal hit -- but their consistency on the field must be as strong as possible. They also have a safety net of sorts in the replay booth. The replay official will review every on-field targeting penalty that carries an ejection and will rule whether the ejection should be upheld.
"Now we're asking replay to get a little bit involved more in the judgment call," Carollo said. "They do [currently] have some judgment, a few rules where they can create penalties, but the replay person in the booth is not the eighth official. The game is being officiated by the seven men or women on the field.
"Now he'll buzz down once it’s targeting, and he'll confirm that hit. ... The targeting calls are going to stand unless there's indisputable video evidence that shows it's nowhere near above the shoulders."
Carollo supports the use of replay in these instances but doesn't want to "make a 5-minute production out of it." The onus remains with the on-field officials.
Carollo also expects to review targeting ejections -- submitted to him by coaches after games -- along with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, and, in some cases, reduce the penalty impacting the following contest.
Not surprisingly, Carollo received some "good rebuttals" from "defensive-minded" Big Ten coaches about the proposed change at their annual meeting last month. He told them the policy change was inevitable and showed them plays that may or may not be targeting, including a block by Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell against Wisconsin cornerback Devin Smith in the 2012 Big Ten championship.
Bell was flagged for a personal foul, negating a touchdown. Carollo thinks the hit merited a penalty, but not an ejection for targeting the head.
The coaches also reviewed the now-famous hit against Michigan's Vincent Smith by South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl, which didn't draw a penalty.
"The tackler had his helmet up," Carollo said. "It was helmet-to-helmet, but it wasn't targeting. The helmets kissed, if you will, with the helmet up like that. The helmet came, the ball popped out, all at the same time. It looked vicious because [Smith's] helmet popped off, but technically, it was probably a legal play. That's in the gray area where it's close."
Carollo doesn't expect football to stop becoming fast and violent and noted that many "really vicious" hits are completely legal. But officials are going to err on the side of player safety whenever a blow to the head is involved.
The it's-just-football excuse no longer flies.
"It may be 'just football' for the last 50 years," Carollo said. "But going forward, we're trying to get that play out of the game."
In addition to another revision of the rules on low blocks, the rules committee also approved a rule requiring at least three seconds to remain on the clock in order to spike the ball to stop the clock at the end of halves. Carollo said the change stems from the 2012 Rose Bowl, where Wisconsin's Russell Wilson attempted to spike the ball for one more play with two seconds left, but the clock ran out.