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Players of the Game: Young Illini show promise in loss to Nebraska

Despite the double-digit defeat, there were several promising performances from young Illini in Lincoln this past Saturday.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois came to play against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, but unfortunately for only three quarters. After an exhausting ten minute drive that led to a Husker touchdown, the defense was clearly gassed and the offense sputtered. There were several questionable calls by both the referees and the Illini coaching staff, but here we’ll focus on a few positives from some potential budding stars.

Honorable Mention: Illini special teams unit

This is just great. The Illinois special teams unit surprised Nebraska with a signed Sam Foltz jersey, the Cornhusker punter who was tragically killed in an accident during the offseason. The jersey is great and the video of Illinois presenting it to Nebraska is even better. Check it out:

Third Star: Reggie Corbin and Kendrick Foster

I can’t talk about Kendrick Foster enough. Again, this is a kid who intended to transfer from Illinois to gain more playing time and was seemingly done and gone. Then Lovie gets hired, his family talks him out of transferring, and now he’s getting the starting nod on the road in a Big Ten game. Foster picked up another nice touchdown run that helped spark the Illini offense in the second quarter.

But perhaps more impressive than Foster, whom we saw break out in the first game of the season, was freshman back Reggie Corbin. Corbin had a few touches in the first couple games of the season but his workload greatly increased this week. He finished with 72 rushing yards on nine carries and had some nasty moves that made Nebraska head coach Mike Reilly say, “We’ve got to catch that little bugger” in his halftime interview with ESPN.

Not everyone was happy with the decision to start Corbin and Foster (hello, Ke’Shawn Vaughn), but the bye week was clearly a time for Lovie and the staff to reevaluate what they have and these two young backs have a lot of talent.

Second Star: Patrick Nelson

Talk about a strong performance out of nowhere. Nelson got the first starting nod of his career at strong safety this weekend, and boy did he show he deserved it. He finished with a career-high and team-high 16 tackles against Nebraska and was a force to be reckoned with in an otherwise-lackluster Illini secondary.

If Nelson can continue with these levels of production he should be a permanent starter and a key piece for the Illinois defense for the remainder of the 2016 season.

First Star: Terrell Newby

Mike Reilly may think that Reggie Corbin was a “little bugger,” but he’s got a bugger of his own in Terrell Newby. Newby finished the day with 140 rushing yards on 27 carries including two scores. One of those touchdown scampers was a 63 yard run that was Newby’s longest rush of the day.

Where he really played a key role, however, was during the Huskers’ ten-minute drive that consumed most of the third and fourth quarter. The 5’-10” senior back was called on several times to convert a key third and short and delivered, as well as extending for a first down on fourth and short to keep that ridiculous Nebraska drive alive.

The Illini had his number early in the game, but the defense eventually wore down and Newby was able to expose some holes in the secondary to finish with very impressive numbers. If Illinois wants to salvage the season they’ll need to plug up those holes when the Purdue Boilermakers come to Champaign next Saturday.