Chris Evans said Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium felt like a homecoming.
For the Boilermakers, it literally was. But it was Evans — the Indianapolis, Ind. native — who took the spotlight like it was his, finishing with a team-high 14 carries, 97 yards and two touchdowns.
Prior to Saturday, though, the Michigan sophomore back’s season hadn’t been running according to his plan. Coming off a stellar freshman campaign, Evans was essentially pegged as the Wolverines’ next starter after an Orange Bowl performance that saw him give Michigan the late lead with a 30-yard touchdown run before Florida State’s comeback.
And in Michigan’s season-opener, everything went according to that script.
Evans took the field for the Wolverines’ first snap, and turned in 88 yards on a team-high 22 carries. The only problem, though, was that fifth-year senior Ty Isaac outdid him — turning 11 carries into a team-high 114 yards.
After that game and in the week that followed, Jim Harbaugh was relatively mute about if Isaac’s performance had earned him the starting nod over Evans. Against Cincinnati, everyone got an answer.
Isaac took the first snap. He got 19 more. Evans got five.
Against Air Force, it was the same story. Evans carried the ball six times. The rest of the team rushed a combined 36 times.
And even after Isaac sustained a minor injury against the Falcons, Evans wasn’t given his starting role back.
Instead, it was passed to fellow sophomore running back Karan Higdon in Michigan’s Big Ten opener against Purdue this past weekend.
But finally, Evans got his chance to be the premier back again.
Higdon’s fumble midway through the third quarter ended his day, as he didn’t receive another carry for the rest of the game. Evans filled the void, and he didn’t let the opportunity slip.
The first touchdown rush, Evans admitted Monday, never looked good during the practices leading up to Purdue. But they tried it anyway, and Evans reaped the benefits — taking a toss 10 yards, untouched into the end zone to put Michigan ahead, 14-10, with just under two minutes to play in the third quarter.
“Every time we ran (the) toss that game they bit on it,” Evans said. “They would bite on it fast and break hard. We just creased them up the middle.”
From there, Michigan slammed on the gas pedal and Evans provided the final exclamation point.
With just under seven minutes remaining, Evans lined up in the backfield. He took the handoff from fifth-year senior John O’Korn, and the hole opened up.
“I know that it was bonus,” Evans said. “Everytime I hear ‘bonus’ I know everybody is gonna get blocked. … I just knew I trusted my coach and my landmark and all my coaching that I had all week. They left one dry, and I just — you know, that’s my job, to make people miss in space.”
Evans did his job, beating the safety and taking off for a 49-yard touchdown that — barring a miracle — put Purdue’s hopes of an upset in West Lafayette out of reach.
The Wolverines’ affinity for scoring in the fourth-quarter has become a risky, yet encouraging, trend. Michigan is outscoring opponents 43-0 in the final frame through four games, but more often than not, there hasn’t been much scoring up to that point.
“I feel like it comes down to the workouts over the summer,” Evans said. “When we gotta run 16 gassers and it comes down to the 14th one, the 15th one, and everybody’s tired, and we know that everybody else is doing this so we gotta make sure we get the time. It just carries over to the game.”
As for Evans’ role with the Wolverines, there’s no telling who will be out there for the first snap against Michigan State. Harbaugh has been vocal in saying that he is willing to go with the hot back. Right now, that’s Evans, but the rotating door could still keep turning.
As for the impact a performance like Saturday’s can have for Evans personally, he stressed that it simply makes him push himself more — not because of the stable of backs in Ann Arbor, but because of the ones he will be facing from Penn State and Ohio State.
“It’s gonna make me work harder,” Evans said, “because I know that Saquon (Barkley) and J.K. (Dobbins), they out there working too.”