LINCOLN — Northwestern needed 4 yards on a third down late in the fourth quarter and Ciante Evans knew the football was coming his way.
All game, he’d been shadowing Kain Colter when the versatile Wildcat lined up as a receiver. And in this situation — the Wildcats clinging to a five-point lead with about five minutes left — Evans was sure Northwestern would put the football in the hands of its most dangerous playmaker.
So just before the snap, Evans reminded himself to meet Colter at the first-down marker — because whatever route he ran would end there. And to stay physical — because the refs had been letting both teams bang, grab and shove all game.
“I didn’t know if it was going to be an in-route or a slant or an out,” Evans said. “But I knew he was going to go to the sticks.”
It was an out-route. And Evans was there to force an incompletion, and a punt. Nebraska’s offense scored the go-ahead touchdown on the ensuing possession.
Evans finished the game with one tackle and one pass breakup, but his lockdown effort on Colter and his disciplined approach throughout the afternoon earned a rare and unsolicited shout-out from Bo Pelini during the postgame press conference.
Pelini called Evans’ performance “absolutely phenomenal,” high praise for an individual that the fifth-year coach usually keeps inside the locker room — unless asked specifically about it.
“He was just one guy that to me, from the sideline, stood out,” Pelini said. “He made a lot of great plays.”
Just another sign of Evans’ growth. He plays Nebraska’s complex nickel back position, which carries linebacker-like responsibilities in run support. And he’s never been more confident in this role.
On Saturday, Evans was facing the same Northwestern offense — isolating receivers in space and purposefully attacking the one-on-one matchups it prefers — that mercilessly picked on him last year. Of the Wildcats 24 pass attempts last year, 17 went to a receiver defended by Evans or the NU dime back.
Crossing routes. Misdirection. The occasional deep ball. Evans struggled against it all.
But he hardly thought about that game as he prepared for Saturday’s road trip to Northwestern.
It’s a new year, he said. And Evans is basically a new player, fueled by a more expansive grasp of the defensive scheme and offensive strategy.
He’ll also feed off his emotion, rarely missing a chance to celebrate after forcing an incompletion or making a tackle. He’ll sometimes pose over the fallen opponent. Or make a hand gesture to commemorate a play.
When a pass intended for Evans’ man sailed out of bounds late in the third quarter, he was just about to enjoy the moment — then locked eyes with Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, standing a couple of feet away.
Fitzgerald was screaming for a holding penalty. Evans shouted back, “I just played the ball!”
Then Fitzgerald nodded his head and stretched out his hand. Evans slapped it, and trotted away.
“He high-fived me,” Evans said. “He stuck his hand out at me. I wasn’t going to leave him hanging.”
It’s a side of Evans that he didn’t show last year, when he was too concerned with making a mistake or too uncertain of his responsibility within the system.
Not anymore, though.
He knows he wasn’t perfect Saturday. He missed a few assignments. He was credited with a quarterback hurry in the fourth quarter, but if he’s quicker to the pocket, maybe he gets a hit on the guy. And the coaches would like him to be more active as a run-stopper.
Evans knows all this, which is why he wasn’t satisfied after Saturday’s win.
“Putting in the hard work throughout the week, it really pays off,” Evans said. “Doing the extra, little bitty things. But we’ve still got to get better. We’ve got Michigan next week. We’ve got to move on and prepare.”
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