CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There were injuries, re-injuries and fumbles. Big runs, career firsts and new roles.
But mostly there was shuffling. Lots and lots of shuffling.
Nebraska — out of both necessity and gamesmanship — rotated its running backs at a rapid-fire pace early Saturday night against Illinois.
And from the flurry of substitutions in the first half emerged a short-statured teenager when the Huskers most needed a playmaker.
Wan’Dale Robinson. All 5-foot-10, 190 pounds of him.
After getting 17 total touches in his first three college games, the 18-year-old true freshman and former coveted four-star recruit went from prospect to workhorse in the span of a few hours.
He caught eight balls for 79 yards and ran 19 times for 89 more while securing his first three career college touchdowns in a game where his team required each one.
“I’ve been waiting for that,” NU defensive lineman Carlos Davis said.
Added Wyatt Mazour: “We’ve seen what he’s done in practice. He has a very bright future with us.”
The Herculean effort didn’t seen necessary or likely early on. Maurice Washington ran 10 times for 89 yards in the first half while Dedrick Mills got heavy run as well. But Washington bounced in and out of the game with nagging — or perhaps various — leg ailments that had trainers attending to his gimpy gait on the sideline.
The enigmatic sophomore left the game with a reported head injury before halftime. Then he tweeted midway through the third quarter: “The only thing that hurts is me not being able to cheer my teammates on.”
Mills, meanwhile, was navigating his own yo-yo evening. The junior college transfer fumbled on the first drive of the second quarter at his own 2-yard line, which quickly turned into an Illinois touchdown and 21-7 hole.
He left the field, injured, in the third quarter trying to make a play on a fumble where he laid out and landed wrong on his left shoulder. He later returned to hammer home a 14-yard scoring run on a rare toss play with quarterback Adrian Martinez under center.
He added a bulldozing 2-yard touchdown run that helped NU tie the game 35-all in the final quarter.
All the while the backs repeated the mantra of their position coach, Ryan Held. Next man up. With Washington injured in the locker room, Mills told him the group would pick him up.
If Mills is thunder and Washington is lightning, someone else would need to flash, they agreed. What does that make Robinson after Saturday?
“He brightened the game up for us, you feel me?” Mills said. “I look at him as the sun right now.”
Mazour also ran twice for 16 yards, adding a 10-yard catch in the game, while traveling freshman Rahmir Johnson didn’t play. But the running backs said they don’t “discriminate” when it comes to sharing the football. This, they agreed, was a collective victory more than any single standout.
“I think the offense today really leaned on the running backs, and that’s how it should be,” Mazour said. “We’re Nebraska football. We gotta play in the trenches and we did a good job of doing what we could to keep the offense going.”