Evans returns in style with TD catch
Training camp had gone well enough. Everyone was hopeful. But it took the crucible of a tight game for everyone to know that Lee Evans, sidelined by a devastating knee injury in Wisconsin's 2002 spring game, was back.
The moment came with Wisconsin trailing 17-10 at West Virginia early in the fourth quarter. Facing a third-and-12 at the Mountaineers 20-yard line, Badgers quarterback Jim Sorgi, as he had so many times before, looked to Evans. With cornerback Lance Frazier covering him tightly at the 6-yard line, Evans went up and got the ball. An instant later, Evans was in the end zone. And the Badgers were on their way to a come-from-behind 24-17 victory.
"It was typical Lee Evans," Badgers coach Barry Alvarez said. "All hands. Taking the ball away where he was contested, but catching it with strong hands, then being powerful enough to get in the end zone."
Even the ordinarily poised Evans, who had been preparing for this moment since he had torn up his knee in the Badgers' 2002 spring game, felt the drama pulsing through him.
"It was incredible," said the 5-foot-10, 202-pound senior, who had passed on the 2002 NFL draft after a record-breaking 2001 season, only to see his football life put in doubt by the injury. "I actually had a lot more emotion than I thought I was going to have. I always try to stay calm, stay poised. But it was such a big play for our team. I just exploded with emotion."
With one catch, the receiver who had made 75 catches in 2001 for a Big Ten-record 1,545 yards and nine touchdowns knew the game he cherished was embracing him back.
Back on the sidelines, Sorgi approached Evans with a big grin. "Just like old times," the quarterback said after connecting with Evans on a touchdown pass for the 20th time.
When they went back out, with the score tied 17-17, there was a confidence about the Badgers. They were in a tight situation, on the road against a capable opponent, but they weren't going to be stopped.
After Sorgi connected with Evans for a 15-yard gain, the Badgers went to their traditional bread-and-butter ground game, running on the last six plays of their seven-play, 67-yard game-winning drive.
"It got to the point where we just had to go back to traditional Wisconsin football," said tailback Anthony Davis, who rushed for 167 yards. "We had to really start pounding them."
But rest assured, those holes were easier to open because of the threat of Evans and the promising Wisconsin passing game.
Evans finished the day with seven catches for 70 yards. Sophomore Brandon Williams, who learned on the job when Evans was sidelined last year, had seven catches for 89 yards.
"It took a while to get into the flow and rhythm of the game," Evans said. "Certainly, early, I could have made a couple more plays. But I made them when it counted. I'm grateful for that."
Wisconsin's Big Ten rivals noticed, no doubt. In 2001, Sorgi and Evans connected on 10 passes of at least 30 yards. That combination, along with the running of Davis, who has averaged 1,500 yards the last two seasons, gives the Badgers an offense that has a lot of ways to beat opponents.
Now everybody knows Lee Evans is back.
Herb Gould covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Sun-Times.