Saturday was a big day for Nebraska’s only 2013 defensive captain. Senior Ciante Evans, a first-team All-Big Ten cornerback from Arlington, Texas, was the featured Husker on the big screens during the third quarter of the Huskers’ 39-19 win over Illinois. A live shot of his dad, Cedric, showed a proud father waving to the crowd from his seat inside Memorial Stadium. On Sunday, Evans was honored again, sharing the Nebraska Defensive Player of the Game award with defensive end Randy Gregory. Evans had four solo tackles, a sack and caused a fumble. Gregory was credited with eight tackles, including five solos. Husker coaches gave redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Rose and senior defensive end Jason Ankrah special mention for their defensive performances in the win over the Illini.
With a career high 225-yard rushing performance and two touchdowns on 20 carries, junior running back Ameer Abdullah won the Offensive Player of the Game honor. NU coaches tacked on another well deserved special mention for the Huskers’ stellar offensive line performance in the Big Ten season opener. Nebraska’s depth chart for the offensive line includes centers Cole Pensick and Mark Pelini Jr.; guards Jake Cotton, Spencer Long, Ryne Reeves and Mike Moudy Jr.; tackles Jeremiah Sirles, Andrew Rodriquez, Brent Qvale, Zach Sterup and Matt Finnin; and tight ends Jake Long, Cethan Carter and Trey Foster.
Following post-game film study, Nebraska coaches elected not to name an MVP for Special Teams, but did honor three Scout Team players for their extraordinary efforts in helping the Huskers prepare for the Fighting Illini. Brandon Chapek, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound senior offensive lineman from Bishop Neumann High School in Wahoo, Neb., earned the Scout Team Offensive Player of the Week award. Brad Simpson, a 6-foot, 215-pound redshirt freshman linebacker from Ralston, Neb., was named Scout Team Defensive Player of the Week. And Jordan Nelson, a 5-foot-7, 180-pound redshirt freshman wide receiver, earned the Scout Team Special Teams Player of the Week.
Evans: Husker Defense ‘Took a Big Step’
Evans thought the Husker defense “took a big step” Saturday against Illinois because “a lot of guys were talking” – something that was mostly absent in the Huskers’ first four home games of the season. A quiet leader, Evans is doing his best to be more vocal. “There was a lot more communicating out there” against Illinois, he said. “Guys were flying around and making play after play. It was fun.”
Evans’ four solo tackles against Illinois included two that produced 14 yards in losses. It was a nice complement to his recent two interception performance against Southern Miss, including one returned for a touchdown. According to Evans, preparation is the key. Asked about a pivotal sack he had Saturday, Evans categorized the play as another defensive back pressure. “It was just a double outside blitz,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been working on all week. When he (defensive coordinator John Papuchis) called it, I knew we were going to get home on it.”
Gregory continued to deliver exceptional effort with one of his eight tackles resulting in lost yardage. His presence goes beyond statistics and includes adjustments opposing offenses have to make at the line of scrimmage to stay as far away from Gregory as possible.
Rose Led Husker Defense with 11 Tackles
Rose, a 5-foot-11, 230-pound redshirt freshman from Kansas City’s Rockhurst High School, led the Huskers with 11 tackles, including five solos, six assists and half a sack. His rapid ascent earned special mention, along with Ankrah, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior defensive end from Gaithersburg, Md. who had a sack and two tackles resulting in lost yardage. He also intercepted a pass.
Evans believes Husker veterans and newcomers have worked together to improve defensively. They made significant progress Saturday but still have major milestones to meet on the road ahead. Evans credited middle linebacker David Santos for his contributions and freshman linebackers Rose and Jared Afalava for the roles they played. Santos understood “what was going on and what he was seeing,” Evans said. “He was able to get guys lined up” and able to “communicate on the fly and get checks, so it was fun out there.”
Evans acknowledges missing a fourth down and the pressing need to get better. “But I think we did a good job of knowing the down and distance, the situation and what was at stake,” he said. “We knew we had to get off the field and do other things. I think we understood what was going on. I think those guys (Avalava and Rose) did well, especially for being young and not seeing a lot of snaps … it boosted their confidence … I think they played very well.” The biggest key now, Evans said, is to keep building chemistry and confidence through even better pregame preparation.”
The Big Goal: Keep Illinois Out of End Zone
"Coming into this game, our defense knew we needed to come out strong and perform because Illinois has a very good offense,” Evans said. “We knew that we had to stop them, create turnovers and make plays so our offense could get the ball back. That was very important for us this game." The Husker defense did bend, but stayed focused on keeping Illinois out of the end zone. “I think we did a good job of that,” Evans said. “We didn’t let them create momentum. We just have to continue to do that. We have to understand what’s going on, and we have to understand the key situations in order to limit big plays.” At the same time, the Huskers have to produce big plays of its own on defense. When it comes to blitzing, "I like it a lot if I’m not getting picked up,” Evans said. “I hope Coach Papuchis continues to do it."