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Kenneth Scott caught more than a few balls in traffic during his time at the University of Utah. But as the former standout wide receiver watched his alma mater take on its bitter rival Saturday night, Scott had to wonder who had been unfairly targeted: his fellow Ute receivers, or the two BYU defensive backs who were ejected for leveling them on back-to-back plays at Rice-Eccles Stadium?

"I just thought it was a football hit," Scott said Monday. "If you look back in the day, that would have been a great hit. If [former Baltimore Ravens star] Ed Reed had done that in 2000, people would have said, 'Oh man, that's a wonderful hit.' "

The ejections of BYU safety Kai Nacua and cornerback Austin McChesney on Saturday reignited the debate over football's targeting rule — which was implemented in 2008 and backed by stiffer penalties in 2012 — and the balance of protecting players without losing the game's luster.

There's no question Nacua and McChesney delivered powerful blows. Late in third quarter, Nacua had already nabbed two interceptions when he tracked Utah receiver Demari Simpkins making a run down the middle of the field. Simpkins looked as though he had gathered up the long pass from quarterback Troy Williams only to have it dislodged when the BYU safety lowered his shoulder and leveled the wideout.

Nacua was called for targeting, and plenty took issue.

"I think the officials in the #UtahBYU game would like to turn it into 2 hand touch," ESPN analyst and former player Desmond Howard wrote on Twitter.

Fox commentator Joel Klatt, whose own career was ended due to concussions, objected to the rule that would have Nacua ejected from the game and forced to sit out the first half of play the following week, if the targeting call stood after review.

"He didn't lead with the crown," the analyst said on the national TV broadcast Saturday. "He's trying to hit with his shoulder. He's doing everything right, but the strike zone lowers late. Kai Nacua should absolutely remain in this ballgame."

The official in the booth, however, disagreed.

"That's terrible," Klatt groaned. "That's frustrating for college football fans."

As a wide receiver, BYU's Mitchell Juergens theoretically stands to benefit more than most from the NCAA's rule changes regarding targeting in recent years. But the Cougar wideout was conflicted Saturday night.

"We thought it could have gone either way," he said. "Those were clean hits. Not helmet-to-helmet. It was shoulder to helmet, so it's tough."

But Dave Cutaia, a former referee and now an officiating expert analyst for ESPN, says that's a common misconception.

"Helmet-to-helmet is a misnomer," he said.

The NCAA rule extends beyond simply leading with the crown of a helmet when a player is in a defenseless position, such as making a catch or waiting to field a punt. In those instances, a tackler cannot make "contact to the head or neck area … not only with the helmet, but also with the forearm, fist, elbow or shoulder."

The question in Nacua's case was whether he made contact with the neck and, if he did, whether it was caused by the receiver, Simpkins, dropping down toward the ground.

"I think, to me, if it's iffy like this, I'd like to see you let that go," Fox officiating analyst Mike Pereira said on the broadcast.

That is not, however, how officials are trained to see it. Nacua led with his shoulder, and even in slow-motion replays it's questionable whether he makes contact with Simpkins' helmet. But the rulebook states, "When in question, it's a foul."

"It may have been in the past 'just football' but it's not anymore," Cutaia said, advocating for the targeting rule. "It's very dangerous. It's been established that if you contact somebody in the head or neck area, that there's a very good chance for concussion or serious injury. … That's why they legislated it. I can't disagree with it."

On the sideline, BYU head coach Kalani Sitake went ballistic, earning an additional penalty for arguing with the officiating crew following Nacua's ejection. One play later, Williams' throw toward the sideline was picked off and, as BYU's Francis Bernard fell to the ground with the football, McChesney was called for a targeting foul of his own for hitting running back Troy McCormick high along the sideline.

The replay showed McChesney making some contact with McCormick's helmet, earning him an ejection.

"It's just really difficult for a young man to stop midstream in a run or a play and adjust according to what the receiver is doing," Sitake said afterward. "It's a difficult thing. For those that played the game, it's hard. You run full speed at something and change your body position. I thought our guys did a great job with their body position. I don't think there was intent in there. I thought they held their own."

Sitake's mentor and friend saw it differently.

"They called it just about how every official in the country is calling it now," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said.

As a linebacker at BYU, Whittingham recorded hundreds of tackles for the Cougars. Now he's teaching his own linebackers to avoid some of the hits he used to make.

"I think they made the right calls," Whittingham said. "You hate to say that because football has changed so much in the last 10 years. Hits that were routine 10 years ago" are now illegal, he said. "It's for the safety of the players, I understand that and I get it."

Sunia Tauteoli made a reputation for himself as a hard-hitting linebacker. But when the 6-foot, 225-pound junior left Snow College for the University of Utah, he had to learn how to tackle all over again.

"I led a lot with my head," he admitted. "Over here, Coach Whitt and the staff, they teach us fundamentals and we do that for 15 minutes before every practice. They prepare us for avoiding those calls."

After Nacua and McChesney were ejected Saturday, Whittingham said he didn't make a point of reminding his players to avoid the penalty.

"We preach it all the time," he said. "That's a point of emphasis. … We've completely revamped the way we make plays on the back end."

"The key is to wrap up," Tauteoli said. "Then you won't get the call."

Across the United States, and at every level of football, hundreds of blows, plenty of them dangerous in one way or another, are absorbed each weekend. Utah State coach Matt Wells defended USC's JuJu Smith-Schuster after the wide receiver blindsided Aggie safety Dallin Leavitt with a block Saturday afternoon.

"It's very, very close. Inches. … Even in a replay it's fast," Wells said, but the coach called the blow "legal."

Leavitt, meanwhile, got up, returned to the game and recorded a career-high 15 tackles against the Trojans.

And in a sport where even the most pedestrian tackles are inherently violent, coaches hope targeting rules and other attempts at mitigating the most dangerous moments will help protect players and, ultimately, the game itself.

A longtime high school football coach, Aaron Whitehead has been on the sidelines as one player suffered paralysis from a helmet-to-helmet hit and seen others suffer concussions. "I know a lot of BYU fans aren't excited about the rules right now," he said of the targeting rule. But Whitehead believes rule changes at the prep and college level will help the game survive.

As he watches film now, Whitehead is more aware of looking out for helmet-to-helmet hits. He emphasizes wrapping up and aiming lower on tackles. As he watches his son play youth football, he sees coaches teaching young children to tackle with newly designed tackling dummies, shaped like padded donuts rather than lifeless men, designed to emphasize better technique.

"Football, the last couple of years, has really been under attack for safety reasons," Whitehead said. "The emphasis is on the coaches now to do it the right way. It's a great game. I think it's absolutely the best game in the world. … I would absolutely hate to see it leave schools."

Kenneth Scott sees both sides of the issue.

As he watched his TV this weekend, he sided with a man whose job a year ago would have been to level him flat.

"You want someone on defense to have a killer instinct," he said and added, "If you would have told somebody back in the day what the rulebook has now, they'd say it's flag football."

He worries that football's target rules will lead to other types of injures, and at least one study from doctors at the University of Iowa has indicated concussion rates have stayed similar in college football while injuries to lower extremities have increased since the rule change.

But Scott also knows he benefited from changes to the game's rules along the way, as he caught more than 125 passes and recorded more than 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns during his time as a Ute.

"You feel more protected because you're not scared you're going to get hit in the head," he said. "I guess it's nice to have some of these changes just so you won't be a vegetable when you turn 40 years old."


Steve Luhm and Kyle Goon contributed to this report.