Wan'Dale Robinson Shows Game-Breaking Ability at Illinois
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Wan’Dale Robinson Shows Game-Breaking Ability at Illinois

September 22, 2019

Players and coaches alike were not shy about telling people how good they thought Wan’Dale Robinson was going to be during spring ball and fall camp. Nebraska eased the dynamic freshman into the offense the first few weeks as he made his transition to college football, but the Huskers took the training wheels off on Saturday in Robinson’s breakout performance at Illinois.

Robinson got seven touches on offense and tolled 54 yards in his collegiate debut against South Alabama. He got five touches for 44 yards at Colorado and then got five more against Northern Illinois for 48 yards.

Through three weeks, Robinson totaled 116 yards on nine receptions and 30 yards on eight carries. Robinson got a handful of snaps at running back in each game but was used primarily as a receiver.

But after Maurice Washington had to leave the game before halftime and with Dedrick Mills banged up as well, Nebraska turned to Robinson to carry the load. He carried the ball 19 times for 89 yards and a touchdown. He also caught eight passes for 79 yards and two more scores.

This kid is going to be special.

Robinson scored his first career touchdown in the second quarter with Nebraska trailing 21-7. On third and 6 at the 27-yard line, Nebraska went empty in the backfield with Robinson in the slot to the right.

The outside receiver, Kanawai Noa, ran his route up the sideline while Robinson found an open area short of the sticks and sat down. Martinez hit him and Robinson gave a slight hesitation as he caught it, freezing the linebacker coming over from the middle of the field. 

Robinson planted his foot and exploded forward, running right between the oncoming linebacker and the corner coming back from the sideline. The two defenders collided and Robinson continued forward, juking the safety out of his shoes and angling for the pylon. Noa threw a legal block to make sure the last Illini in the picture couldn’t get there, but he didn’t even need it.

The Kentucky native leaped across the goal line for his first Nebraska touchdown, a 27-yard catch and run.

Robinson is listed as a receiver on the roster, but he was primarily a running back in high school and has said he’s even more comfortable in that spot. He showed it on Saturday.

Fast-forward to the third quarter with Nebraska trailing 35-21. The Illini had just scored a touchdown and kicked off to Nebraska for a touchback. On the first play of the drive, Nebraska put the ball in Robinson’s hands.

Robinson started in the slot but Martinez motioned him into the backfield. Nebraska had three receivers to the right and one to the left. On the snap, Martinez handed off to Robinson. 

Left guard Trent Hixson moved his guy aside while left tackle Brenden Jaimes held his position on the edge, opening up a big hole in the B-gap. Center Cameron Jurgens jumped to the second level to engage with the linebacker. The left defensive tackle got off right guard Boe Wilson’s block and came around to fill the hole.

Robinson saw the play developing, planted his foot and cut back as the tackle ran right by, and he was gone. Robinson made another cut to avoid a safety flying in, side-stepped another tackle and got another few yards before Illinois finally got him to the ground.

The run went for 21 yards, the longest of his young career. He carried the ball a few more times during that drive before Mills finished it off with a 14-yard run to cut the deficit to one score. 

After forcing a three-and-out, the Huskers got the ball back late in he first quarter and moved it down the field with a few chunk plays. Robinson had runs off 11 and 7 yards. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Nebraska went right back to him.

On second and 3 from the 8-yard line, Robinson started to the right but motioned to the left. Mills was in the backfield next to Martinez. The Huskers had one receiver to each side with an in-line tight end to the right.

On the snap, Martinez acted like he was handing it off to Mills but he really pitched it to Robinson coming back across the formation. The outside linebacker had a shot at him almost as soon as he caught it, but I don’t think he even knew where the ball was and Robinson spun past him. Right tackle Matt Farniok threw him a block and Robinson pushed forward. The safety got his hands on him, but Robinson spun again and fell forward.

Robinson picked up 6 yards and gave the Huskers a first and goal from the 2. On the next play, Mills punched it in and Martinez converted the two-point play to tie the game at 35-all with 13:25 to play.

We haven’t seen a ton of successful screens from Nebraska this season, but that’s another way to get the ball into Robinson’s hands in space.

Illinois kicked a field goal to re-take the lead with just over 12 minutes to play and Nebraska went to Robinson again to get things started on the ensuing drive.

Nebraska lined up with trips to the right and one receiver to the left. Martinez motioned Robinson into the backfield next to him. On the snap, Robinson sprinted out to the right as the trips receivers set up backs ahead of him. Martinez got him the ball and Robinson turned the corner and angled up field and towards the sideline, navigating through the lanes created by his blockers (Jack Stoll, Austin Allen and Kanawai Noa) and showing off his speed.

Robinson picked up 13 yards on the play then followed it up with back-to-back 4-yard runs. Eight plays later, Robinson finished off the drive with a 1-yard run and gave the Huskers the lead for good.

The defense forced another three-and-out by Illinois and Nebraska got the ball back with less than seven minutes to play and with burning clock the primary objective.

The Huskers gave it to Robinson again to start the drive, and this time he showed a bit of power to go with his speed and shiftiness. Robinson lined up in the backfield next to Martinez and the quarterback handed it off to him.

Robinson ran off right tackle with Wilson pulling to block the outside defender, opening a hole for Robinson. Stoll picked off a linebacker and Robinson burst through the hole for a nice gain. One defensive back bounced off Noa’s block and another was in position as well, so Robinson didn’t have any room to evade. He realized that and decided instead to lower his shoulder and run the safety over, falling forward for an extra yard.

Martinez followed the 8-yard pick-up up with a 44-yard run over his own. Nebraska didn’t end up scoring on the drive thanks to a missed field goal (aided by a false start that moved Nebraska back), but the Huskers chewed up 4:35.

Four straight incomplete passes by Illinois essentially ended the game and secured the come-from-behind win for the Huskers.

Robinson showed a bit of everything against Illinois, from the shiftiness to evade tackles to the speed to run by defenders to the power to run them over. Robinson showed good vision and patience and a natural feel for making plays with the ball in his hands, whether as a runner or a receiver. 

Robinson’s breakout was somewhat out of necessity, but Scott Frost would be wise to keep feeding the kid and giving him a chance to make a difference.

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