“In general, it’s a sense of urgency,” said Burns. “They’re understanding it, and you try to instill in their heads, at least on defense, that it’s not OK for them to catch the ball. You do everything, and I don’t want to hear that you’re close. Make the play. We are emphasizing that. It’s not necessarily any different from any other week, but at the same time, they’re honing in.”
The Bears pass defense is dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards allowed this season (361.2 ypg), and have allowed the 37th most passing yards per completion. That said, Burns has seen some improvement, despite what the statistics say.
“They’re getting better at certain things,” Burns said. “It’s just that there are so many new things that they’re seeing that it just takes them a second to say, ‘OK, I understand what you’re saying. I see what this route is trying to do.’ But, at the same time, sometimes it’s a mental mistake here or there, and you’ve got to think. They are getting better. They’re clearly understanding some situations. It’s just a slow process, but we are getting better.”
Last week, Cal allowed 214 yards to Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, who completed 15 of 21 attempts – well over his 64.3% season completion percentage, but that was without senior safety Michael Lowe, who was ejected on the first play of the game due to a controversial targeting ejection.
“What happened with Michael Lowe, any time you lose a guy that’s played a lot of games on the first play of the game, that’s rough,” said defensive tackle Austin Clark.
“Obviously, experience, you can never match what experience can give you,” said Burns.
Lowe addressed the penalty and being ejected from his final Big Game on Tuesday.
“It was just unfortunate. I was going out there, trying to give effort, like I do every week. I was trying to make a play on the ball, but unfortunately, the way I hit the guy, it was ruled targeting. There’s not too much I can do about it once the ref makes the call,” he said. “It happens. You can go through tons of film, and watch football, any game, any Saturday, and something will happen like that – a guy going down, another guy coming in trying to make a play. Incidentally, the helmets hit or whatever it is, but it wasn’t anything that I did intentionally or anything like that. That’s the game of football. Things happen like that, and, unfortunately, [it happened].”
Lowe said that it was not intentional – just two players each going down at the same time – but owned up to the penalty, and doesn’t bear any resentment.
“Well, I did it,” he said. “I thought I was going for the ball, trying to make a play, making a football play, reacting to the quarterback throwing it to my guy. But, when I got up and I saw the flag, the ref had seen something else. I didn’t want to make a big deal about it.
“I can see both sides, protecting the other players, as well, I can understand why they made the call. I don’t want to really talk about it, too much, but I’m accountable for whatever it was that happened.”
That said, it was difficult to miss his final Big Game.
“It was pretty tough,” he said. “I was a little bit disappointed in the whole situation, itself, and myself, for allowing it to happen. You always look back at yourself to try and figure out what it was you could have done differently. The coaches and I talked about it. I just have to pick my head up and avoid that problem.”
“Right now, he seems fine,” said Burns. “It’s on to the next one. His focus is there. I think, if anything, it’s going to teach him. It wasn’t blatant. He wasn’t trying to. The guy’s falling down and he goes for the tackle. It’s the bang-bang deal. But, at the same time, it probably hit him: This is the last one, and I want to go all-out, at home, for the last home game. I think that’s where his mind is.”
Lowe has to pick his head up not just on the field, but heading into his final game at Memorial Stadium – a 1 p.m. tilt against BYU on Saturday. He looks at his ejection as essentially a bye week, for him, since he didn’t take any hits or get banged up against the Cardinal.
“Shoot, that in itself is big,” he said. “I wanted to play in the Big Game, but being here for my last home game is a big game, in itself. I look at it as me having a fresh body, and picking up a bye weekend and being able to come out here, start fresh and continue with the same energy that I had all last week, preparing for the game.”
In Lowe’s stead, Burns placed senior Bryce McGovern at safety in his first significant game action at the position since converting from wide receiver.
“Bryce had a hell of a game,” Burns said. “He actually had a really solid game. There were some things that kind of surprised him, and for a first-time guy back there in that type of a situation, he didn’t quite see some things, but, I actually thought he had a really good game. It made us feel really comfortable with him. At the same time, you do miss Lowe for those plays, ‘Man, if he was in, Lowe would have seen that, or he would have made that play.’ I’m happy for the way Bryce played.”
On Tuesday, McGovern was back at it, and even had a battle wound on his forehead, with blood on his jersey.
“It came as a pretty big shock when everything happened the way it did,” said McGovern. “The opportunity presented itself, and I figured that I had to go about my business professionally, and went out there and did it.”
Because of the sudden nature of his being thrust into the game, McGovern said that he didn’t think much, which allowed him to play on instinct, and record a career-high six tackles.
“If I would have known, pregame, that I was going to get as many snaps as I did, I probably would have been in my own head a little more,” McGovern said. “I didn’t have time to think about it, and just went out there and reacted. Shoot, I definitely made a lot of mistakes, as far as my first real full-game experience, but I thought I did alright. I was just going back to the basics of football and not overthink too many things. It worked out.”
McGovern also got his first career blocked punt in the fourth quarter, his own big moment in the Big Game.
“Just with four minutes left, being able to get that done, it showed that we weren’t stopping, and we weren’t giving up,” McGovern said. “I was happy that it ended up working itself out. The Red Sea parted, and it was a pretty easy lane to the ball, so it was kind of fun the way that played itself out. It hit off my left forearm, and I was hoping that it was playable, so I could scoop and score. That would have made the story better. The way it went, it bounced out of bounds and I high-fived my teammates.”
Both Lowe and McGovern will be playing in their final games at Memorial on Saturday against a Cougars team that lost not only its starting quarterback Taysom Hill in the fifth game, but also will be without career 2,500-yard rusher Jamaal Williams, who went down with a neck injury earlier this month. How has the BYU offense changed with senior quarterback Christian Stewart at the helm?
“Truthfully, it is hard to walk away with a sense of, ‘Here’s exactly where they are,’” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “They’ve played some good opponents, but it’s been a while. I don’t know what that does to your team. I really don’t. I know that they’re going to be prepared and ready to play, and I know they have talent, but for me to speculate on what that does to your team, I think everybody handles that different, so I don’t know what that means, exactly, when they come in here.
“In regards to the quarterback, they changed their offense a little bit. Taysom Hill was such a focal point of what they were doing, in terms of running the football. The new quarterback has really improved. He’s a little bit more of a thrower. He’s a very capable runner. He’s a strong, physical runner. They just don’t run him as much as they did Taysom.”
Stewart’s first action came against Utah State, in relief of Hill, when he went 10-for-29 with three interceptions. He’s thrown just two interceptions since, and has had just two games where he’s completed under 60% of his passes since the Utah State game. He’s thrown at least one touchown in each of his six games since the Hill injury, and has thrown at least two in all but one game. In six and a half games, he’s thrown for 1,829 yards, where Hill had just three picks in five games, and threw for 975 yards. Whereas Hill ran 86 times for 463 yards, Stewart has run 60 times for 186.
“To be honest with you, since they have a new quarterback, we’re not worrying about what the old quarterback did,” said Burns. “At the same time, we will do our research, but right now, we want to study what this quarterback does, because that’s who we’re facing, and what they like him to do. Right now, we’re just focusing on those last five games.
“I haven’t over-studied the other one. But, at the same time, I do know that other quarterback was very athletic, not saying that this one isn’t, but that other quarterback definitely had some speed to his play. This guy runs the system and they still run the quarterback, but at the same time, he’s not as fast as the other one.”