CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Wan’Dale Robinson is a real one, Husker head coach Scott Frost said Saturday night.
When Maurice Washington left the game just before halftime with an injury, Nebraska asked its true freshman all-purpose wideout for more. When Dedrick Mills fumbled the ball away once again and the offense needed some stability, Nebraska asked Robinson for more. When it looked like another route over the middle would break wideout JD Spielman, Nebraska asked Robinson for more.
Mills calls Washington the lightning to his thunder. With Washington sidelined, Mills went to Robinson at half and said “You have to be the lightning now.” Robinson responded. Eight catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns through the air. A team-high 19 runs for 89 yards and another touchdown on the ground. In the second half, he had 115 of his 168 total yards. Mills said Robinson is now the sun. “He brightened the game up for us.”
Big Ten play for Big Red opened with a 42-38 win over Illinois on the road in part because of Robinson’s effort. Nebraska (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) snapped an eight-game road losing streak by coming back from two different 14-point deficits.
The offense produced 690 yards of offense but penalties and turnovers rusted the edges a little. The defense was gashed on the ground (6.5 yards per carry, adjusted for sacks) in ways it hadn’t yet been in 2019. This was a gut-check performance for Nebraska and the Huskers finally answered the call.
You gotta look at Robinson’s play as an example of why.
Frost appreciated the production. He appreciated the want-to more. Robinson was the smallest guy on the field — and a true freshman — and time after time lowered his shoulder into piles. Eleven of his carries came in the fourth quarter alone.
“He wanted the ball,” Frost said. “He wanted to take over that game and in a lot of ways he did. I’m glad he’s wearing scarlet and cream.”
The performance surprised no one. Senior defensive lineman Carlos Davis said they knew after mere days in spring ball. “I’ve been waiting for that,” he said. Senior tailback Wyatt Mazour said Robinson “just attacks everything he does.”
Nebraska needed that.
Nebraska needed guys to take over.
There’s something to be said for this team finding a way. There’s something to be said for guys doing what’s needed to win on the road.
“It’s about time,” Mazour said. “After the Colorado game, we talked about how we’re done learning about these experiences. We need to actually apply it to the field and get these things done. There’s no more learning, no more letting this happen. We have to overcome that. Every game, besides the Michigan game, has been close since this staff got here and we just couldn’t ever really get over the hump. Now we’re figuring that out and we’re actually applying it.
“Our mentality was totally different in that fourth quarter from what I’ve seen. … We’re starting to figure it out, how to win.”
The offense had a chance to put the game away late. An 11-play, 4:08 minute scoring drive put Nebraska up 42-38 with exactly eight minutes to play. The defense forced a three-and-out on the very next Illini drive and, with 6:38 to play, the offense was getting the football with a chance to kill the clock. Nine plays, 75 yards and four minutes later, Nebraska was at the Illini 5 looking at a chip-shot field goal to go up seven.
Kicker Lane McCallum put it up and through the uprights, but a false start moved the ball back and forced a re-kick. That one went off the left upright and the defense was put back on the field with 80 yards to defend and a four-point cushion instead of seven.
Illinois went four plays and didn’t pick up a yard.
“Bad teams lose this type of game,” inside linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “We didn’t play our best football. There’s still a lot of good football for us to play. Good teams, they survive this type of game and find a way to win. That’s what we did here today. We found a way to win.”
“We answered the call tonight,” added quarterback Adrian Martinez. “Our guys stayed confident. We didn’t let it get to us that we were down a couple touchdowns. No one lost faith in our team.”
Martinez said the same thing about Robinson. He answered the call.
“I've been anxious ever since I stepped foot on campus. I've been waiting for that moment ever since I decided to come here and play football at Nebraska," Robinson said. "I came here to play a big role. I came here to help us win football games.”
Nebraska will need him again next week. ESPN’s College GameDay will descend on Lincoln for the first time since 2007 for a showdown with No. 6 Ohio State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten). Nebraska lost that game in Columbus, Ohio, last season by five after losing by what felt like 100 in years prior. This program has a chance to do something it hasn’t in a long time.
“It’s just a great opportunity for this program,” Barry said from outside the team locker room. “The momentum that we could possess after this? What we could do for this program after this win? Just getting this win could do so much. I always remember Alabama when they beat Georgia in “The Blackout Game” in 2008, that was the start of the Alabama reign. This is a huge, huge game for us and I’m just so ready to play it.”
Robinson, from the podium inside, said he was excited. Tide coach Nick Saban said that 2008 game was the kind of game a kid goes to a school like Alabama to play in. This kind of game — a national stage, a primetime setting — is why Robinson is at Nebraska.
Said Frost: “We got one there.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.