Illinois vs. the University of Connecticut in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in East Hartford, Conn.
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Reggie Corbin went through the full round of pregame warmups Saturday afternoon at Rentschler Field. The Illinois running back was one of the first players on the field for the informal warmup — shoeless per what seems to be his new normal — and then went through drills with the rest of the offense in full uniform.
Then he didn’t play. Corbin was held out of Saturday’s 31-23 victory against UConn as a game-time decision while he still recovers from the hip pointer he suffered in Illinois’ season-opening 42-3 win against Akron on Aug. 31.
“He’s close but wasn’t quite there,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “He’ll have a little bit more time this week, and hopefully he’ll be ready to go this week.”
The Illinois run game without Corbin produced 130 yards on 35 carries. Nearly half of that production came from redshirt freshman Jakari Norwood, who broke off a 50-yard run and had six carries for 62 yards.
“I pretty much figured it out right before the game,” Norwood said. “(The coaches) came to me and told me, ‘You’ve got to ball out (Saturday).’ We’re facing a lot of adversity, but they all believe in us. (Corbin) coming up and giving us some motivational words, we knew we could do it for him.”
Dre Brown was the second leading rusher with nine carries for 33 yards. He also caught a nine-yard pass and returned five kickoffs for 163 yards. The redshirt senior said his “old body” was doing fine after the game.
“It feels good to play a full game and compete with my teammates,” Brown said.
★ ★ ★
Even not at full strength, the Illinois run game did more than what UConn produced. The Huskies rushed 29 times for only 10 yards on Saturday.
“We did a great job up front,” Illinois senior linebacker Dele Harding said. “That started with the D-line, of course, making the reads a little blurry for the running back, and linebackers could get downhill and fill in the gap when needed.”
Junior safety Michael Marchese was just as complimentary of Illinois’ defensive front.
“Put that on the front seven guys,” he said. “We’re just back there filling our gaps, but the big boys are eating. I think all of Illini Nation can see that. Our front seven is dominating. That’s just great to see.”
★ ★ ★
Doing his fair share of dominating was junior defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr. The Southern California transfer led Illinois with 3 1 / 2 sacks — tying him for fifth for most in a single game in Illini history. Betiku’s totals were part of a five-sack, 12 tackles for loss performance by Illinois.
“That’s how he’s been since he’s gotten on campus,” Smith said. “He’s a good rusher and plays the run hard. Just does everything well. A day like (Saturday), we needed him to play better ball. All we asked all of our players to do was to make improvements since last week. Wole, I think it’s safe to say he did.
“Believe me, any defensive lineman will tell you there’s competition for sacks. You know exactly how many sacks everyone has. For him, it’s a heck of a start. He hasn’t played a lot of ball and it’s been a long time, so he can take another step. I really believe that.”
Betiku said he wasn’t keeping track of his sacks during the game.
“I don’t count on the field,” he said. “I just play. I feel like when you count, you get distracted in the game. We just played as a team and followed the game plan of the coaches. We all bought into it, and then we played hard, played aggressive and we got in the backfield when it was third down.”
★ ★ ★
Marchese got plenty of playing time Saturday against UConn. Already down a safety with Sydney Brown still out after suffering what Smith called a significant hamstring injury during training camp, Illinois also played the first half without sophomore Kerby Joseph after he was flagged for targeting in the second half of the Akron game.
The Illini’s depth issues were only aggravated when senior safety Stanley Green was ejected for targeting in the first half on Saturday.
“I didn’t like it,” Smith said. “You can’t do it. I mean, what can you say? They looked at it, and it’s a targeting call. It hurt our football team at the time. It’s not a good thing. We’ll keep working to try to avoid that. Believe me, we’re not teaching it.”
Marchese, who had an interception right before halftime and finished with three tackles, said he stays ready to play no matter the circumstances. Junior safety Tony Adams going down with an injury Saturday was also one of those circumstances.
“I’m always ready to go whenever stuff happens,” Marchese said. “It’s really every week preparing like you’re going to be in the game. Whenever that happens, you just have to go out there and make plays.”
★ ★ ★
Green’s targeting call was just one of several big yardage penalties for Illinois. The Illini were flagged nine times for 98 yards worth of penalties, but the two that Smith disliked the most were the excessive celebration penalties on Ra’Von Bonner and Daniel Barker after they scored in the first half.
“Just can’t have it,” the Illinois coach said. “We can take when you’re playing hard ball and you get a holding penalty every once in a while, but those right there, it’s embarrassing a little bit. That’s not who we are. We’ll clean those things up. You won’t see that in the future. I promise you that.”
★ ★ ★
Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith has already seen a difference from his offense this season. The Illini’s ability to put together lengthy drives in fewer plays is a positive. That’s his preference to 10- or 15-play drives where every call, every situation, has to be right for the offense to make a play.
Having more athletes that can simply go make a play — see Brandon Peters’ touchdown pass to Josh Imatorbhebhe in the second quarter on Saturday at UConn — is a bonus.
“Basically, the bottom line, the players make you look a lot better probably than what you really are, and that’s what you want,” Rod Smith said. “That’s exactly what I want. I don’t want to have to be right every snap for 20 snaps in a drive series. That’s miserable. That’s hard.
“That’s hard to maintain over a course of four quarters. You want guys that are difference-makers that when they catch the ball, it’s between them and the good Lord and what he blessed them with, and hopefully they go to work.”
★ ★ ★
The first travel roster of the season was interesting given a dozen different walk-ons all made the trip to Connecticut. Seven played, including Marchese, but mostly on special teams with Nolan Bernat, Christian Bobak, Alec McEachern, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley graduate Bryce Barnes, Sean Coghlan and Donny Navarro.
Among the scholarship players that stayed behind in Champaign was Sydney Brown. Other notable players that didn’t make the trip were redshirt freshman quarterback Coran Taylor (even though walk-on Cam Miller did since he signals in plays from the sideline) and Calvin Avery. The sophomore defensive tackle out of Texas — and former four-star recruit — simply isn’t part of the rotation at defensive tackle at this point of the season.