COLUMBIA, Mo. • Missouri cornerback Randy Ponder spent most of Saturday night’s game against Arkansas State holed up in the Memorial Stadium locker room.
“It was tough,” he said. “It felt like I was in jail.”
That would be NCAA jail.
With 5:50 left in the first quarter of the Tigers’ 41-19 victory, Ponder was flagged for targeting when he tackled ASU receiver J.D. McKissic on a 4-yard hitch route, leading to his automatic ejection under the NCAA’s new targeting penalty. Just as the ball arrived, Ponder struck McKissic in the helmet with his facemask — an otherwise textbook tackle had Ponder aimed below the shoulder pads.
Asked Monday, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel did not object to the penalty.
“I don’t care if you’re wrapping up or not, you cannot hit an unprotected player,” Pinkel said. “He caught the ball and he turned, so he’s unprotected. You cannot hit a player with anything above the shoulders. You can’t with your elbow, your forearm. You can’t head-tackle. It’s not just launching your head. You can’t hit above the shoulders.”
With Ponder’s penalty, Missouri (4-0) has the dubious distinction of being the first team to have two players ejected under the beefed-up punitive measure for a rule that’s been in place since 2008. Linebacker Andrew Wilson was ejected in the third quarter of Missouri’s game against Toledo Sept. 7 and was suspended for the first half of the following game against Indiana. Ponder’s penalty came in the first half, meaning he’ll be available for the start of Saturday’s Southeastern Conference opener at Vanderbilt after sitting out the second half against Arkansas State.
Two Alabama players have been flagged for targeting — safety HaHa Clinton-Dix against Texas A&M and cornerback Eddie Jackson against Ole Miss — but in both cases, instant replay reviews reversed the calls and the players were reinstated.
Ponder, who watched the rest of Saturday’s game on a TV in the locker room, said he’s made the same kind of tackle many times in previous games.
“I felt like it was just another hit, just like last year,” he said. “Throughout my whole career I’ve made physical hits, and I didn’t feel like it was anything different.”
“When it happens to you, you take it personal,” Ponder added, “as far as, yeah, I respect the rule and understand the (issue of) player safety, but at the same time, man, do I really deserve to get kicked out of the game?”
Coaches around the country have voiced frustration with the new rule, especially the 15-yard penalty that’s levied even if the play is reversed. Pinkel said the yardage aspect of the penalty could get reviewed during the offseason and suggested offending players be ejected for two quarters instead of the ensuing half. Wilson, for example, was essentially suspended for nearly four quarters because his penalty occurred on the fifth play of the third quarter against Toledo.
“The most important thing,” Pinkel said, “is that we get in the habit of playing where we don’t hit above the shoulder pads. That habit that we teach, that’s the most important thing we want to get out of this. Then the rule part will take care of itself.”
ON THE MEND
Starting defensive tackle Matt Hoch is expected to play at Vanderbilt (3-2, 0-2 SEC) after missing Saturday’s game with a sprained toe. Then again, Pinkel expected Hoch, the team’s most experienced interior defensive lineman, to play against Arkansas State.
But when Pinkel visited with trainer Rex Sharp on Friday to discuss Hoch’s condition, Sharp said the toe would heal quicker if the junior sat out against Arkansas State. Hoch missed a few preseason practices with a triceps tendon injury.
“He’s getting frustrated,” Pinkel said. “Let’s get him healed up so he feels good. I think he’ll do fine this week and we’ll have him back ready to go. I told him he’s not allowed to get hurt.”
Left guard Max Copeland, still recovering from a sprained ankle suffered against Toledo, came off the bench Saturday and split series with starter Anthony Gatti, and Pinkel expects the Tigers to stick with the rotation for now.
SAM I AM
With a career-best three sacks Saturday, Michael Sam became the third Missouri defensive end to win the SEC defensive lineman of the week honors. Sam is averaging a league-high 1.8 tackles for loss per game, which ranks eighth nationally. He follows teammates Markus Golden (vs. Toledo) and Kony Ealy (vs. Indiana) in winning the league’s weekly honor for D-linemen.
EARLY KICKOFF AT GEORGIA
Missouri’s first game between the hedges at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium will kick off at 11 a.m. (St. Louis time) on Oct. 12 and will be televised on ESPN, the Southeastern Conference announced.
The Tigers’ trip to Athens, Ga., will mark Missouri’s first game in the state of Georgia. The Bulldogs, ranked No. 7, won last year’s meeting 41-20 in Columbia, which was Missouri’s first SEC contest. Missouri’s only other meeting with Georgia was a 14-0 defeat in the 1960 Orange Bowl.
Missouri’s SEC opener this Saturday at Vanderbilt kicks off at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast Sports Southeast. The game is expected to be televised on local affiliates around the state. Those channels will be announced later this week.