Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama Football: Quinton Dial's Hit on Aaron Murray Was a Legal Block

UPDATE: SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw today said commissioner Mike Slive will decide whether Quinton Dial will be suspended, pending a review of the film.

By rule, you can’t hit a defenseless player above the shoulders,” Shaw said. “What the determination needs to be is was this a defenseless player and was contact initiated above the shoulders? When we go through video review of it, that’s what we’ll have to determine. And then you as you break it down, did he lead with the head or lead with the shoulder? From game action, it was a personal foul regardless of how we break it down frame by frame.

The key in all of this is whether Murray was defenseless. To quote Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven, when accused of shooting an unarmed man: Well, he should’ve armed himself.

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During the SEC Championship game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs, Tide defensive lineman Quinton Dial delivered a bone-jarring hit on Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. The violent hit has been labelled a dirty cheap shot by some, and a clean – if devastating – old-school pop by others. As with everything in sports, it’s been the subject of overheated rhetoric on both sides of the discussion.

As you might expect, Georgia fans and the anti-Alabama crowd have called for suspensions for Dial. Some Alabama fans meanwhile say that hard hits are part of the game, and that Murray should have been on the lookout for the block.

When I set out to write this piece, I came into it from the perspective that it was a borderline call, and the referee chose not to throw a flag. While I sympathize with those that want to make football a safer sport with less potential for permanent injury, I recognize that football is by its nature violent, and that removing all risk from the game is impossible.

I also write for a site dedicated to Alabama Crimson Tide athletics, so the perception will be that my bias is obvious. Despite that, I have tried to be as objective as possible, and weigh the evidence as it is.

And so, on to the facts of the case:

Murray had just thrown an interception, and was running – slowly, it is noted – toward the return. At that point, Murray became a defensive back, who by running to the play is attempting to stop the return of the interception. Dial, at that point is basically an offensive lineman, and threw a block on Murray to prevent him from making a tackle.

The NCAA rule on hitting a defenseless player states:

ARTICLE 14. A defenseless player is one who because his physical position
and focus of concentration is especially vulnerable to injury. Examples of
defenseless players are:

a. A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass.
b. A receiver whose focus is on catching a pass.
c. A kicker in the act of or just after kicking a ball.
d. A kick returner whose focus is on catching or recovering a kick in the
e. A player on the ground at the end of a play.
f. A player obviously out of the play.

True enough, Murray was making only a half-hearted effort to pursue the play. Dial was in essence getting a free, legal shot at the quarterback. But was Murray really defenseless, or was he not paying attention to his surroundings?

At the moment of impact, Dial lowers his shoulder, delivers the hit, and drives his forearm through the block. It’s a vicious – and legal – hit.

The problem is that for an instant, Dial’s helmet contacts Murray’s helmet, immediately jerking Murray’s head backward. Dial appears to have his head up the entire time; he doesn’t lower it to deliver a helmet-to-helmet hit. However, by delivering the shoulder block as he did, the result is the same.

The NCAA rule on helmet contact is as follows:

ARTICLE 3. No player shall target and initiate contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. When in question, it is a foul. (Rule 9-6.)

While film review indicates helmet contact did occur, in my judgement the helmet contact was incidental to the hit, not the point of attack. It’s very close, and perception of the incident absolutely could be clouded – for or against – by one’s biases.

On replay a referee enters the frame, and while it’s impossible to tell, it appears his focus is on the interception return happening some 15 feet from the block on Murray. If the ref saw the impact and turned to look in that direction, he would likely only have seen Dial finishing the block and landing on the fallen quarterback.

Given all of this, it’s hard to see how a flag could have been thrown for unnecessary roughness. It was a devastating block that happened to include brief incidental helmet-to-helmet contact.

Okay, but now we have the benefit of replay. We can now see the play in slow-motion. Shouldn’t Dial be suspended for the BCS title game for the helmet-to-helmet contact?

Once again, here’s the NCAA on reviewing a foul that was not called during the game:

ARTICLE 3. If subsequent review of a game by a conference reveals plays
involving flagrant personal fouls that game officials did not call, the conference
may impose sanctions prior to the next scheduled game.

Aside from the breathless editorials calling for Dial’s suspension and public shaming, there has been no word from the SEC or the NCAA that the play is being reviewed. That could change, and there is plenty of time for a review between now and the BCS Championship game.

My opinion is that it was a borderline but legal block, and that no action will be taken to suspend Dial. That could change at any time, and I’ll no doubt hear about it from Georgia fans at that time.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. Was the block a cheap shot, or hardnosed football? Should Dial sit out the BCS title game, or should Murray have kept his head in the game?

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