In last year's 48-17 loss at Wisconsin, receiver Jared Abbrederis victimized the Husker defense, catching five passes for 95 yards and a score. In the week leading up to this year's rematch, the members of the NU secondary vowed to make things more difficult on Abbrederis this time around.
It certainly didn't look like they would keep their promise early on.
Abbrederis racked up 107 yards on five first-half catches while going mainly against Josh Mitchell and Andrew Green. He gave Wisconsin a 20-3 lead early in the second quarter when he hauled in a 29-yard pass over Green, and the Badgers looked poised to run away with the game.
But the Huskers made a change in the second half that put the clamps on Abbrederis. Ciante Evans, who served as the team's nickel cornerback and was arguably the stickiest cornerback through NU's first four games, was assigned to cover Abbrederis on nearly every play. Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said it was an easy choice once he saw Evans' confidence.
"He said, 'Put me on him,'" Papuchis said. "When a guy wants that challenge, we give it to him."
Evans immediately numbed Abbrederis' impact. Evans wasn't perfect - the UW junior hauled in two second-half passes for 35 yards - but his production was noticeably muted.
"Basically when they went into that 22 personnel, we wanted Ciante to match up with him in the second half, and Ciante did a great job of really getting into him and playing him," secondary coach Terry Joseph said. "He really shut him down in that second half. Obviously, that helped us out."
Suddenly, the Wisconsin passing offense that was so efficient in the first half stalled. After looking comfortable and confident in the first half and throwing for 161 yards, quarterback Joel Stave lost his mojo with his favorite target locked down. The redshirt freshman completed just three passes in the second half.
Evans was ready for his role, but he admitted he wasn't entirely at ease with it initially. Playing in the slot and on the outside are two very different responsibilities for a cornerback, and though Evans spent a lot of time in practice this week working on the outside, it took him some time in the game to get a good feeling for it.
"I wasn't just out there not knowing what I was doing," Evans said. "I wouldn't necessarily say that I was out there comfortable, but as the game progressed, I got more comfortable."
The more time Evans spent on Abbrederis, the more relaxed he became, and he even began to develop some tells for the Wisconsin receiver. Evans said Abbrederis is a great route runner and doesn't give much away, but after a while he began to pick up on a few subtle nuances that helped him.
"He would give a look to where he was looking to," Evans said. "He didn't do it a lot, but he did it a couple of times. I kind of picked up every time he was doing it, whether he was going to crack the safety or do an over route. It's just little things like that. You're going against him 30 plays and on the 30th play, I've got to have an advantage somehow knowing him and what he's doing."
Even with the vast improvement in the second half, the secondary's effort left much to be desired. The defensive backs gave up several long passes and were flagged multiple times for pass interference.
But when the game was on the line, the secondary stepped up and made the plays it needed to, leading Joseph to believe his unit has yet to reach its great potential.
"Sometimes the emotion gets you away from your responsibility," Joseph said. "In the first half, you kind of saw a little bit that we might have been too jacked up early in the game. We cut some guys loose and weren't in the right spots. Hopefully as we mature throughout the season, we'll be better at that."