LAWRENCE — To gauge Mike Lee’s frustration with his second-quarter targeting ejection in last Saturday’s defeat at Texas Tech, one needn’t look to the Kansas football standout’s words.
No, the junior safety’s immediate reaction to the ruling — on his hands and knees, head face-first in the turf — painted the mix of rage and devastation well enough.
Nevertheless, the hard-hitter provided quite the window into the pivotal moment during a candid interview with assembled reporters Tuesday at the Jayhawks’ weekly media availability.
“When (senior defensive tackle) Daniel (Wise) said, ‘It’s just 15 yards,’ I was like, ‘It’s 15 yards and I’m out of the game. Ain’t no more me playing. It’s over with,’ ” Lee recalled. “I really wanted to play the whole game, and I feel like if I played the whole game, the game wouldn’t have went the way it went.”
Lee had nine tackles — all solo — and a forced fumble at the time of his ejection with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter of the Jayhawks’ eventual 48-16 defeat. Both Lee and Red Raider wide receiver Antoine Wesley appeared to lower their heads at the moment of impact, and after review, officials assessed a personal foul and disqualified Lee for the remainder of the contest.
Lee disagreed with the ruling.
“He lowered his head at me,” Lee said of Wesley. “He’s 6-(foot)-5; I’m 5-10. You want me to move out of his way? I couldn’t do that.”
Lee wasn’t expecting the play to be reviewed — “I thought somebody did something bad or got a holding penalty or something,” he said — and after the judgment, he jogged to the locker room where he showered, seethed and watched the remainder of the contest on an iPad.
“I was heated. I was salty,” Lee said. “I ain’t really want to talk to no one.”
In his postgame radio remarks, KU (2-5, 0-4 Big 12) coach David Beaty said the “consistency has not really been across the board” from college officials on targeting calls added he’s “not real sure if it’s easy for these folks to tell sometimes.”
Still, the incident was a teachable moment for Lee, Beaty contended.
“I know he’s a hard-hitter and he put some hits on those guys today and he drops his head from time to time,” Beaty said. “When you drop your head you’ve got to be careful because you put yourself in harm’s way of being ejected. I know it hurt him and it tore him up because he doesn’t want to do that, but that’s part of him growing up and learning to tackle and keeping his eyes up.”
Last Saturday’s contest marked the first appearance in three weeks for Lee, who suffered an undisclosed injury in a Sept. 29 defeat to Oklahoma State. Beaty said fresher legs aided the safety, who was “coming downhill with a little bit more punch to him than in recent weeks.”
A pregame conversation with safeties coach Cassius Sendish set the table.
“(Sendish) told me before the game started, he was like, ‘You have to go out there and make them fear you. You gotta go out there and hit them hard,’ ” Lee recalled. “When he told me that, I was like, I’m going to go out there and do what he told me to do, and that’s what I’m going to do — hit them hard every single play and make them feel me.”
Fresh legs and Sendish’s words weren’t the only motivating factors for Lee, he revealed.
“What really got me started was when (Texas Tech) started talking trash to me after I guess I got hurdled,” Lee said. “A guy on the sideline was saying, like, I’m trash, so I just took all his energy and put it in my body. That just made me go out there and do what I did.”
Despite playing less than two quarters, Lee still finished as the game’s second-leading tackler behind only teammate and fellow safety Bryce Torneden, who had 10.
“It hurt to get kicked out of the game. I was doing so good. I had them terrified, the Texas Tech offense and their running backs,” Lee said. “... They started tiptoeing. They started tiptoeing. And after I got out of the game they just started doing whatever they wanted.”
If there is a silver lining for Lee, it’s that his ejection came in the first half, meaning he's eligible for the Jayhawks’ next contest at 2 p.m. Saturday against TCU (3-4, 1-3) at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. Fans, Lee said, should expect him to play with that same fire and vigor in that matchup and moving forward.
One question remained regarding the Texas Tech contest, though: If Lee had remained in the game, how many tackles would he have had when all was said and done?
Never short on bravado, Lee’s answer was very on-brand.
“At least 25. At least. All 25 solo, at least,” Lee said with a smile. “All of ’em were going to be hard-hitting too. They were going to feel me.”