Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
ATLANTA — Shane Ray says he isn’t a dirty player.
The Missouri defensive end, who has recorded a school-record 14 sacks this season, was ejected in the second quarter of the Tigers’ 42-13 Southeastern Conference championship game loss for a targeting penalty.
Ray hit Alabama quarterback Blake Sims after he released a touchdown pass, and the players’ helmets made contact. The penalty was upheld upon review, but Ray believes he played within the rules.
“It’s known, it’s a rule if you’re two steps from the quarterback,” said Ray, who spent the rest of the game in the locker room. “You can put a hit on the quarterback while he’s throwing the ball. I hit him as soon as he released the ball. I led with my hands. I did not lead with my helmet. I placed my head underneath his chin. The call was the call. There wasn’t anything I could do about it.”
Ray, a junior who will likely forgo his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, was devastated to leave what could be his final conference game with more than a half to play.
“It’s very, very tough,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking. Everything I do with my brothers, I lay it all on the line, 24-7, and to not be able to be out there, win lose or draw with these guys in a big game like this, it’s definitely affecting me.”
The penalty was Missouri’s third this season and fifth since the rule was implemented in 2013. Anthony Sherrils and Braylon Webb were ejected this season against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, respectively.
The NCAA rulebook states “no player shall target and initiate contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. When in question, it is a foul.” Ray said he thought players should be ejected for targeting if helmet-to-helmet contact is made, but didn’t believe he had delivered such a hit.
Ray said Sims’ height — the senior is listed as 6-foot — could have played a part.
“He’s a short quarterback. You’ve got to aim lower,” Ray said. “Don’t leave it up to the referees. That’s what it comes down to.”
Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said the penalty was part of a continuous problem for Missouri. Ray had a late-hit penalty to end Arkansas’ final drive last week, which could have prevented the Tigers from reaching Atlanta in the first place.
“We’ve had personal fouls in these games, penalties,” Pinkel said. “We’ve had them the last three or four weeks also, and you get in big games like this, and it’s not very good. I’m responsible for that.”
With Ray gone, Missouri’s pass rush seemed to disappear at times.
Markus Golden, the Tigers’ other standout end, said he didn’t notice if he got added attention with Ray gone.
“There are no excuses,” Golden said. “If they double me, I’ve still got to make plays.”
The Tigers did manage a sack and 4 1/2 tackles for loss without Ray.
“He’s one of the best defensive players in the country, hands down,” Missouri linebacker Michael Scherer said. “So when you lose a guy like that, it’s tough, but we’ve got other guys on the team, and we rallied around each other and we played together.”
Missouri senior receiver Bud Sasser expressed displeasure with the refereeing after the game.
“It’s always something,” he said. “For our past five games, no excuses, but it’s been something detrimental that we’ve had to get over every game, especially with penalties. … I feel like that one was ready to get called. It just so happened to be on Shane.”
Missouri was unable to overcome this time, losing for the first time in seven games and for the second straight year in a conference championship game.
And Ray could only watch.
“I watched the game,” he said. “I supported my brothers. I talked to my brothers at halftime, gave them my full support. The game’s not about me. It wasn’t about me leaving. It’s about the team, and that’s what it’s all about. That’s what I focused on.”