With the UW offense floundering and its vaunted running game struggling more than it has in years, the Badgers wouldn’t mind having star flanker Lee Evans in the lineup Saturday against a dangerous Arizona team.
Barry Alvarez hinted at Monday’s press conference there is a possibility that the record-setting receiver, who tore his left ACL in UW’s spring game, may be in the lineup against the Wildcats this weekend. While Alvarez declined to give a firm statement about Evans’ availability, he did allow the possibility that Evans, who was slated to return Oct. 5 against Penn State, may suit up Saturday.
“That’s going to be Lee’s call,” Alvarez said when asked if Evans will play against Arizona. “I’m not even going to speculate when he’ll be back. We’re preparing that he won’t be in the game. If he’s ready, he’ll play.”
Alvarez’s comments about Evans’ return were the most encouraging in weeks. Evans has been practicing with the team, running near full speed and making cuts in order to test his surgically repaired left knee. A return against Arizona would put Evans back on the field only five months after surgery, an impressive recovery time for an injury that usually takes 6-8 months to rehab properly.
Despite the possibility that Evans may return Saturday, the UW offense is expecting the worst — Evans not playing — but hoping for the best. And Badger quarterback Brooks Bollinger knows even an Evans return won’t solve all of the Badgers’ offensive problems.
“I think that there’s so much else to worry about; preparing each week for the opponent we’re going to face, and getting better in the areas we need to get better in,” Bollinger said. “When Lee comes back, obviously it’s going to be a great bonus, but I don’t think anyone’s sitting here saying we can just let the problems slide because Lee is eventually going to come back. And when Lee does come back, we can really hit the gas.”
Evans, who set a Big Ten record with 1,545 receiving yards last season and was runner-up for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver, is one of the premier receiving threats in the college game. After catching nine touchdown passes and averaging 20.6 yards per catch last season, he decided not to enter the NFL draft and returned to UW for his senior season with high hopes. He again is a Biletnikoff and All-America candidate, but after missing at least four games, Evans’ focus will be not on awards but on helping UW’s passing game and drawing defenses away from the Wisconsin running attack.
UW tailback Anthony Davis wouldn’t mind having Evans in the lineup after posting three straight sub 100-yard games. Davis realizes Evans’ return would likely mean fewer defenders keying on him.
“Teams are definitely trying to stop the run; their whole game plan centers around our running attack; we see a lot on nine- and ten-man fronts. Last year, teams couldn’t do that with Lee around. They had to double cover him.”
Evans’ return has become even more important due to an injury to flanker Darrin Charles. The 6-foot-6 Charles, who has battled toe and ankle injures all season, played hurt in UW’s first three games but sat out against Northern Illinois last Saturday. Alvarez didn’t give any indication as to what Charles’ status will be this weekend, but he expressed the possibility that the lanky wideout will not be in the lineup.
“If Darrin can’t play, he won’t play. I’m not going to put him on the field unless he’s full speed, or close to it,” Alvarez said. “In the first game, he was probably 90 percent, and we can play him at that. There are some matchup problems with his height, and we can put him on the field.”
If Evans does not return against Arizona, a bye week before the Penn State game will give the senior even more time to get up to full speed. Having a healthy Evans on the field will be crucial against Penn State, who dominated Nebraska over the weekend, and also Oct. 19 against Ohio State, who appears to be the premier team in the Big Ten.
Bollinger and Davis know Evans could give the UW attack a much-needed boost in the upcoming weeks. The Badger offense has moved the ball well at times but has occasionally struggled to gain yards, and Bollinger wouldn’t mind having his favorite target back in pads.
“When Lee does come back,” Bollinger said, “we can really hit the gas.”