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Bennett-Smith: Helmet-to-helmet hits are a no brainer

If there is one thing you can always count on, it’s the innate ability of human beings to do stupid things. When football is involved, go ahead and take that stupidity to the next level.

On Saturday, in the midst of Andrew Luck’s game-tying drive against USC, Trojan safety T.J. McDonald lit up Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu after the senior wideout couldn’t grab a third-down pass. And by lit up, I mean lit up.

Although McDonald arguably led with his shoulder, he all but speared Owusu from behind at full speed and slammed into Owusu’s helmet in a violent collision that knocked him out of the game.

The play was a big one for both teams–USC’s defense was bending but not breaking at that point and thought it had produced a crucial third-down stop when Stanford had to score a touchdown to tie the score. But the flags quickly came flying as Owusu lay on the ground, the 15-yard penalty extended the drive and Luck took full advantage as the Cardinal sent the game into overtime on Stepfan Taylor’s 2-yard touchdown run.

USC coach Lane Kiffin was beside himself with the penalty, criticizing the work of the referees in hopes of drawing a fine of his own (which he did, to the tune of $10,000 from the Pac-12). And McDonald was further suspended for the first half of the Trojans game this week against Colorado.

An immediate question that I had after Owusu went down, however, was why is this poor guy such a magnet for abuse? It doesn’t matter that the injury he suffered on the play had more to do with his shoulder than his head, because the highly touted receiver from Oaks Christian High has had more than his fair share of injuries during his time at the Farm.

Three concussions, two devastating knee injuries and a healthy helping of nicks and bruises have combined to put Owusu and his blazing speed on the bench for 16 games over three and a half years, and at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Owusu isn’t exactly a twig in between the lines.

This leads me to the stupidity that surrounds us, even here at Stanford. As I was waiting outside the media room to meet with Coby Fleener for an interview, I overheard one of the members of the press core talking about McDonald’s hit, and criticizing Owusu and others who have been taken out of games this year with helmet-to-helmet hits for being “weak.”

I’ve never played football, besides throwing the ball around with my family or dominating the “Ink Bowl” (see last week’s column for an explanation) but I’m pretty damn sure that no one has any business calling elite, Division-I football players “weak” (and he did not use that term, opting for a much more vulgar variation.)

This particular man justified their weakness by leaning back and giving the ol’ “I played back when it was a man’s game, and let me tell you, we didn’t come out of the game for any little head injury.” He elaborated on this oh-so-sophisticated-philosophy by telling me how Owusu’s hit was clean, and how the defender had every right to launch himself into a wide receiver in order to try and disrupt the play. He criticized Owusu for not being able to properly “defend himself” and lamented the rule that penalizes hits on defenseless receivers.

This got my blood really boiling.

The purpose of rules that protect the quarterback from unnecessary roughness and wide receivers from getting blown up unfairly is to neutralize the unbelievable speed and strength that has percolated from the professional ranks to the college game and now onto some high school fields.

With all of the studies coming out about how many debilitating injuries hit former football players as they age and how much risk is associated with repeated blows to the head, I don’t understand how former football players who are lucky enough not to suffer from dementia don’t see how important it is to protect those on the field from themselves.

Because the players certainly don’t want to stop hitting each other, and they don’t want to be seen as weak. Owusu said on Tuesday that he doesn’t want to stop asking for the ball, and Luck will certainly continue to find one of the most explosive players in college football.

And as long as football is played with helmets and pads, violent hits will continue. Owusu is one of several members of the Cardinal who is testing specialized mouth guards equipped with a wireless transmitter for a Stanford study to record impact data on the field. The study also includes players from Notre Dame and Washington. Owusu’s crushing hit two weeks ago at Washington State was the highest recorded in the study so far, according to Stanford coach David Shaw.

But that doesn’t mean adjusting the rules slightly, and I do mean slightly–plenty of hits go un-penalized and I’m mostly advocating for players to avoid brutal shots to the head that cause injuries–is a bad thing.

Miles is hoping not to sustain any concussions in this year’s Ink Bowl. Send him scouting reports on the Daily Californian’s defensive ends at [email protected] and check him out on Twitter @smilesbsmith.

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