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CHAMPAIGN — Pick a running back. Seemingly any one of the three will do.

Week 1 was Reggie Corbin's time to carry the load for the Illinois football offense, running 10 times for 79 yards and two touchdowns against Kent State.

On Saturday against Western Illinois, Mike Epstein broke off long runs to carve the Leathernecks' defense and rush for his second career 100-yard game, racking up 105 on just eight carries. In the same game, Corbin punched in his third touchdown of the season.

Plug in Ra'Von Bonner and factor in the running from the quarterback position, where AJ Bush Jr. is tied with Corbin for a team-high 142 rushing yards, and the Illini ground game is taking off.

Prior to the game against Western, head coach Lovie Smith and the coaching staff had an inclination that Epstein would break out.

“Running back-wise, when you’re a spread offense, you’re going to get opportunities," Smith said. "Once you get to the second level, you've got to make guys miss. Mike Epstein, as long as he’s been healthy around here, has been a good football player. That’s what we’re expecting."

It's a three-man running back rotation, Smith said, based on what the opposing defense calls for.

"All of our running backs bring something more to the table," Smith said. "It is based on the type of game we need to have. It can change by quarter, game, or week. Just as a general rule, we go in playing all three of our guys."

Epstein missed the final seven games of last season with an injury, but tallied up 346 rushing yards and three scores in five games as a true freshman out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

He's 100 percent healthy, he said on Saturday.

“We have a really great group of backs that I keep mentioning," Epstein said after Saturday's win. "It allows us to be fresh. You don't know who’s going to have a take-over game. Our depth is a blessing. It doesn’t matter who’s having a good game."

Corbin is off to a fast start, with more touchdowns (3) this year than his previous two years combined (2).

There's no animosity when he's on the sideline and one of the other two backs are finding breathing room.

“I was happy for him," Corbin said of Epstein. "(Running backs coach Thad Ward) had talked about it before the game. He expected that. He knew it was going to break and it’s going to break for everybody one day. You’ve just got to stay consistent, you have to believe. We watched that all camp, we watched that in practice all week."

Proud dad moment

For years Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson Sr. was both coach and dad to his son, Hardy Nickerson Jr.

On Sunday, he was just dad.

Hardy Jr., a former Illini, is a linebacker on the Cincinnati Bengals who came up with a tackle on Colts tight end Jack Doyle with 37 minutes left in the fourth quarter, forcing a fumble that was picked up by another former Illini, Clayton Fejedelem, who returned it for a touchdown.

“I’m dad," Hardy Sr. said on Monday. "I’m jumping around just like any other dad, super excited about, No. 1, the opportunity, then making the most of that opportunity."

Missing for the first half

Illinois cornerback Cameron Watkins was ejected in the third quarter of Saturday's win over Western Illinois after a hit on running back Steve McShane.

Watkins was ejected and will miss the first half of Saturday's game against South Florida at Solider Field in Chicago.

“We want the game to be as safe as possible," Smith said. "If you lead with your helmet, the crown of your helmet, targeting can be called.

“We’ve seen the play that he made over and over again. We didn’t necessarily agree with it at the time, but when we’re in disagreement with some calls, we submit that to our league office and they give a ruling on it. That’s going to stand. Sometimes, I think it’s hard to avoid some collisions like that."

Watkins had seven tackles at the time of his ejection.

The Illinois secondary is also with Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs, who are serving indefinite suspensions, and Tony Adams, who is injured.

Keeping it special

Saturday's win against Western Illinois was a collection of all of the parts for the Illini.

M.J. Rivers II threw for two touchdowns in relief of injured starter AJ Bush Jr., the defense had three takeaways and special teams got production across the board.

Kicker Chase McLaughlin connected on two field goals, one being a 54-yard make, tied for the third-longest in Illinois football history.

Sophomore defensive back Dawson DeGroot blocked a punt that Stanley Green returned for a touchdown, and Blake Hayes pinned two of his five punts inside the 20-yard line, and three of them traveled more than 50 yards.

“I have not blocked a punt before," DeGroot said on Saturday. "I’m a little bit new to punt return, but I’m trying to help the team anyway I can and it felt great."

And Hayes' performance?

“Blake crushed it (Saturday)," DeGroot said. "He always seems to do something. We definitely had a good thing."

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25



Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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