CHAMPAIGN - Lovie Smith stumbled a bit when he tried to describe what Reggie Corbin brings to the Illinois offense. The Illini head coach couldn't immediately find the exact words but moved his hands in a zig-zag motion.
Everyone knew what he meant, especially if you watched Corbin dance around Nebraska defenders on Saturday.
Some call it "wiggle." Some call it "juice." Corbin has another word for it.
"We call it sauce it our (running backs) room," Corbin said. "Dripping sauce."
On Saturday, Corbin's sauce was sweet for the Illini but too hot to handle for the Cornhuskers as the 5-foot-10, 185-pound redshirt freshman from Washington D.C. shimmied as much as Hillary Clinton at a debate.
Corbin was one of the real bright spots in a youth movement during the Illini's disappointing yet encouraging 31-16 loss at Nebraska. He accumulated a career-high 90 yards on 12 touches, including 72 rushing yards on nine carries.
Illini quarterback Wes Lunt said Corbin provided the Illini offense with "a spark."
"He made a lot of big-time moves out there and kept the play alive," Lunt said.
Corbin was told on Tuesday that he would make his first career start, supplanting sophomore Ke'Shawn Vaughn, and he immediately called his father who told him to "stay humble and keep working."
Smith had said during the offseason that Vaughn could start for most Big Ten teams, but on Saturday he relegated Vaughn to the third-string back -- he had a career-low one carry (he'd never had fewer than six carries in a game) for one yard -- and kick returner duties.
“We felt like Reggie would give us something that we haven’t seen before," Smith said. "That’s what we had. It’s as simple as that. We look at the pool of players that we have and go with the guy that we think gives us the best chance to win.
“What I like about (Corbin)? He can make you miss in the open field. As much as anything what he brings that’s different than the rest of the guys is that open field movement part. Kendrick Foster’s a little bit different also. All three of our running backs are different. Today, we thought these guys in the lead role would give us the best chance to win.”
Corbin did what most smart running backs do during the postgame interview. He gave credit to his offensive line and down-played individual achievements following a loss.
"I'm not really focused on that," Corbin said. "I hate losing -- so much. I want to fix that. Whatever I can do (to help), if it's to block more or even sit on the sideline more. To help the team win, that's all that matters to me."
Corbin proved on Saturday that Illinois has a better chance of winning when the ball is put in his hands -- so he can drip that sauce.
"I feel like I proved that I'm trustworthy and that I can do my job," Corbin said. "We talk about holding the rope, which means everybody doing their job. I feel like I did my job for pass pro, catching the ball, everything that I could do, speaking because the crowd was loud, communicating. I think today I just tried to do my job."
New blood on defense
Corbin wasn't the only Illini making his starting debut on Saturday. Three Illini defenders made their first career starts.
“We played some different guys," Smith said. "Coming off a bye week, you look at a few more different combinations, which we did."
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Tre Watson shifted from strongside to weakside linebacker -- replacing junior starter James Crawford -- and totaled a career-high 10 tackles and forced a fumble in his first career start.
Redshirt freshman Patrick Nelson replaced Julian Hylton as the starting strong safety and led the Illini with 16 tackles, the most for an Illini this season.
Sophomore linebacker Julian Jones filled in for Watson at strongside linebacker and totaled a career-high six tackles, including two tackles for loss.
“During the first week of the bye week, coaches kind of let us know where we stood on the depth chart at that point," Jones said. "We kind of took it and made it our opportunity
“We have a lot of young guys on this team that can play. We all just kind of sitting back and waiting for our time to step up. I feel like today we stepped up.”
Smith seemed pleased with the new blood on defense.
“You’re ever evolving as a team, really," Smith said. "You give guys an opportunity. After you play a while, you look at what players have done. If you feel like you have a better option, you have to look at that option. That’s what we did. So all those moves, we thought the player that got time today that hadn’t been playing did something to warrant more time. For the most part, I was pleased with what some of the guys did.”
Cutting to the Chayce
Some Illini fans want to see a quarterback change. The Illini made one -- at least temporarily.
Illini redshirt sophomore backup Chayce Crouch entered the game late in the second quarter in relief of Lunt. He was used in a red-zone package to help the Illini in an area where they've struggled.
On his first snap, Crouch handed the ball to fullback Nate Echard, who had the option to throw but bobbled the ball and missed an opportunity to hit Malik Turner in the end zone. On his second snap, Crouch completed a 13-yard pass to Turner to the four-yard line.
Crouch's biggest error though came when he didn't get a third snap off and took a five-yard delay-of-game penalty that knocked Illinois from a first down at the 4 to first down at the 9. Lunt re-entered the game, and the Illini had to settle for a field goal.
Smith said the Illini planned for the new wrinkle all week.
“I think he did OK for what we we wanted him to do," Smith said. "The plan was for Chayce brings a different element to our offense of course being able to run. A general rule is that if the quarterback’s in the pocket you can do some things on defense, but if that option’s there for him to run it, it’s a little bit different. That’s what we wanted to get from Chayce and that was the plan coming in all along.”
Illini senior defensive end Carroll Phillips left the game late in the fourth quarter with a left knee injury. He limped off the field under his own power.
But there is concern about Phillips, who entered the game leading the nation in tackles for loss per game.
“Don’t know the extent of the injury," Smith said. "Whenever you can’t finish the game, of course there’s concern.”
- Illini kicker Chase McLaughlin went a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals (24, 43 and 33 yards). He is now 5-for-5 on the season.
- Illini defensive end Dawuane Smoot matched a career high with eight tackles, including two tackles for loss.
- Freshman tight end/wide recever Zarrian Holcombe made his Illini debut, playing special teams and a few snaps on offense. Illinois has now played nine true freshmen this season: Holcombe, DB Stanley Green, LB Jake Hansen, LB Dele Harding, DL Kenyon Jackson, OL Darta Lee, RB Tre Nation, DL Tymir Oliver and WR Dominic Thieman.
- For the first time in his career, Lunt finished with positive net rushing yards (five). His 14-yard run late in the second quarter matched a career high.