ANN ARBOR — It has been a full seven games now in which the Michigan football team has not been flagged for targeting.
Significant, of course, because the fourth-ranked Wolverines were flagged for the personal-foul infraction three times in their first four games.
At the time, head coach Jim Harbaugh questioned the judgment of two of those calls. Defensive coordinator Don Brown wondered aloud whether he should still continue coaching.
But Brown has since cooled down, and broached the topic, unprompted, to reporters on Wednesday.
“Did you notice the targeting thing has kind of quieted down?” Brown said to head-nodding reporters. “Me too.”
Michigan linebacker Khaleke Hudson was the culprit in two of those three penalties, forcing him to miss two halves of football — one each in consecutive games.
The first one, a helmet-to-helmet hit on a ball-carrying Southern Methodist quarterback in between the tackles, drew the ire of Harbaugh at the time. When Hudson returned for the second half of a game against Nebraska a week later, he was ejected for a helmet-to-chest hit on quarterback Andrew Bunch.
“The one thing that’s really happened, to be serious: Players are conscious. Coaches are conscious,” Brown said. “I think we’ve kind of found a happy medium, where it’s kind of like it was a year ago.
“It was there, but not frequent.”
Hudson’s pair of ejections followed safety Josh Metellus, who was ejected for targeting in the first half of the season opener at Notre Dame.
Michigan (9-1, 7-0 Big Ten) was penalized a total of 46 times in its first five games this season, a majority of which were assessed to the defense, a troublesome pattern that had the coaches worried.
So, what exactly happened earlier this season? Brown remains unsure. The 2018 Football Code of the NCAA rules committee stipulates “targeting” as “initiating contact a defenseless player opponent and/or with the crown of the helmet.”
“I really don’t know,” said Brown, whose Michigan defense ranks No. 1 nationally, both in total yards and passing yards allowed per game.
“I think getting the head of officials in here, (that) would be a really good question to ask them. Was it a priority?”
Whether officials made it a priority early on in the season is unclear, as nationwide data on targeting penalties is not available. But what is fact is Michigan defenders have largely avoided those types of situations since.
Maryland had two defenders ejected for targeting in its game against the Wolverines on Oct. 6, while Penn State had a targeting penalty overturned against Michigan on Nov. 2 when a hit on Donovan Peoples-Jones was determined to not to be malicious.
But, nothing close to be called against the Wolverines in almost two months. And that’s just the way Brown prefers it.
“It had me laying awake at night, trying to figure out ways to combat it,” Brown said. “But the reality is, just kind of stay true to your values, which you know you’re teaching the right way in terms of the tackling piece.
“I joked with Khaleke (on Tuesday), calling it ‘The Khaleke Hudson penalty.’ He didn’t laugh. I’m joking. … I think we’re all being able to play the game of football again, with the emphasis on that. Which is where it should be.”