SALT LAKE CITY — What is it like to be ejected for targeting?
“It is terrible,” Utah safety Philip Afia said.
The junior learned that firsthand during the Utes’ 38-20 loss to Arizona State.
Starting in place of senior Marquise Blair, who was himself serving part of a suspension for targeting, Afia was retroactively whistled for his first-quarter hit on Sun Devil wide receiver N’Keal Harry.
The play seemed harmless — there was no whistle at first, it appeared to be an ordinary pass breakup — but after a review, Afia was ejected.
“It is a real gut-wrenching kind of feeling,” he said.
He wasn’t the first Ute to be ejected for targeting this season.
Blair has been ejected twice, once against Washington and again against UCLA, and Leki Fotu was kicked out of a contest for his hit on Washington quarterback Jake Browning.
Targeting has been an emotional and hot-button issue throughout this college football season, particularly in the Pac-12.
After the emotions subside people usually move on, however.
It is a next man up sort of thing.
That isn’t the case for ejectees.
The entire process is designed to make them dwell on their mistake and hopefully learn from it.
It all starts with the initial review, something both Afia and Fotu would rather forget.
“It is terrible. There is no warning. You are either going to be in the game for the rest of it, or you are going to be out,” Afia said. “It is tough. You just wait for your heart to drop, hoping that you get to stay in.”
“At first I didn’t know the call was going to be on me,” Fotu added, remembering his penalty like it was yesterday. “I thought it was going to be on a teammate, Caleb Repp. I thought it would be was roughing the passer. Targeting? That wasn’t on my mind.
“When I heard my name and targeting called, my emotions were everywhere. I was so frustrated.”
After a targeting call is confirmed, players are removed from the field of play, cordoned off in the locker room, unable to interact with their teammates.
“I didn’t know that I couldn’t be on the sideline with my teammates,” said Fotu. “I guess that is the rule, that you can’t be with your teammates. I went in, changed, and came right back out to the sideline. Then they told me I had to go back inside the locker room.”
When you are on the road, as both Afia and Blair have experienced, it is a long and lonely walk back.
“It was terrible,” Afia said. “All the fans are heckling you. I couldn’t care less what they say, but they try to get into your head. It is a long walk all the way back and you just have to think.”
Once in the locker room, things don’t get any easier.
Players are left alone, left to their own devices.
You’d think watching the rest of the game would be of paramount importance to them — it is — but that is easier said than done.
“If it is a home game you have a TV, but if it’s away then you kind of just sit there,” Blair said.
He would know. Blair has sat out halves in both the Rose Bowl and Sun Devil Stadium, as well as Rice-Eccles.
“You can watch the game from the locker room,” Afia added, “but ASU had a TV in there that was from like 1995. It was about 12 inches, had a tiny screen, blurry vision. You couldn’t really watch the game. I tried to watch it on my phone, but it kind of sucks to sit in there and watch it anyway.”
While sitting out the first half of the Washington State game, Fotu had no TV, no phone, nothing.
“I didn’t know how the team was doing until halftime,” he said. “I was just in there stretching, getting my mind right. Thinking of ways to contribute when I came back in the second half.”
Both Blair and Fotu have experienced arguably the most difficult part of a targeting ejection, sitting out the first half of a game and then being expected to immediately contribute in the second half.
“It is super weird,” Fotu said. “You prepare all that time before the game and then right before kickoff it all goes away. You have to restart your stretching and get your mind right again.”
“I mean you have two quarters so you just kind of sit there,” Blair added. “So yeah, it’s not great.”
The worst part though is the feeling of helplessness, the inability to be there for their teammates.
“It just sucks not to be able to help your team at all,” said Afia. “Mine happened so early, so I had a lot of time to think. I had a whole lot of game to watch.”9 comments on this story
“It definitely sucks, not knowing how your brothers are doing out there, not being out there with them,” Fotu added.
Because his ejection against the Sun Devils came in the first half, Afia will not have to sit out any portion of the game against Oregon.
“That’ll be nice and hopefully I can get back in there,” he said.
As for what he learned from the experience?
“Man, it is just terrible.”
• • •
Utes on the air
Oregon (6-3, 3-3)
at Utah (6-3, 4-3)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700AM