CHAMPAIGN – Illinois’ intent was clear when they competed for the first time at Penn State on Saturday with seven offensive linemen and two tight ends.
The Illinois had obviously used goodbye week to tinker with their offensive plan. And two weeks after Illinois essentially gave up its running game against Wisconsin’s top-ranked running defense – to a seriously poor result – Illinois leaned on what it had done best all season.
Handed over to Chase Brown and Josh McCray. This time behind a cavalcade of blockers, including Michael Marchese as a real full-back.
It was a success.
Brown carried the ball 33 times for 223 yards and Illinois’ only touchdown. McCray added 24 carries for 142 yards. And the Illinois tapped back then – no. 7 Penn State 20-18 for best win of the season and first road win against a top 10 team in 14 years.
“We wanted to be the most physical unit on the team when we were out there,” said Tony Petersen, Illinois offensive coordinator. “We wanted to get the ball into the hands of our running backs and let the football run. It worked for us. … It’s great to have two backs that we feel can handle the ball so much – especially when we run the ball so often. I can’t say enough good things about our running backs, and if you want to talk about the running backs, you have to talk about the offensive line and tight ends and the work they did on Saturday. “
Relying on Brown and McCray almost entirely in the running game evolved over the course of the season. Illinois competed in 2021 with a handful of running backs it was comfortable with. Then Mike Epstein was lost for the season after two games, and Brown and McCray became the permanent options.
Brown has missed two full games and parts of others with injuries this season.
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Canadian still has 93 carries for 637 yards and four touchdowns, and his 6.85 yards per carry ranks ninth nationally.
McCray has added 87 carries for 490 yards and a touchdown and ranks 10th nationwide among newcomers to rushing yards.
Brown and McCray have grown close since the latter arrived on campus this summer. And the veteran Illinois running back has served as some sort of mentor to the 6-1,240-pound freshman from the Enterprise, Ala.
“I just wanted to be that big brother, to help him and make things easier for him,” said Brown.
This also includes a lot of time together in the film room.
Brown and McCray have different styles and different ways of seeing the game. Add in Brown’s experience in both Western Michigan in 2018 and Illinois since, and McCray learned a lot.
“I learn a lot from Chase in film school,” said McCray. “He sees a lot of things differently, like cuts, like holes. He opens my eyes more. I really think that helps me a lot in games. “
But what was the biggest impact Brown had on McCray’s game?
“Footwork,” said McCray. “Chase footwork. He has godlike feet. Chase has probably the best feet I’ve ever seen. “
Brown and McCray’s joint success in winning Penn State was built with one big carry after another. Brown averaged 6.8 yards per carry – just like his season average – while McCray outperformed his season average at 5.9 yards per carry.
Their collective effort put the Penn State defense down by a total of 357 yards when you factor in minus 8 yards from Art Sitkowski despite a string of successful quarterback sneakers.
“There is no break in defense,” said Brown. “We have two different running styles, but we complement each other very well. … It burdens them, right, when they just fight and have to watch our linemen like that all the time. It is not easy.”
Illinois’ 67 rushing attempts at Penn State were a season high and 17 more than the next highest total three weeks earlier against Charlotte when Brown had his other 200-yard rushing performances of the season.
Petersen said he used the “barge” package of seven offensive linemen more than he expected based on its success, but called more than three times as many rushing plays as passing plays against the Nittany Lions.
“I don’t mind calling run plays for 4 and 5 yards at all,” said Petersen. “If that happens in future games and we can play the ball like we did on Saturday, we will continue with these types of calls. That doesn’t bother me at all. That’s great.”
Chase Brown now has two of the ten best rush performances in the country this season after taking Illinois to a surprising win at what was then No. 7 Penn State. The full list after the first eight weeks of the regular season:
PLAYER, TEAM DATE COMPETITIVE YARDS
1st Tyrion Davis Prize, LSU Oct 16, Florida 287
2. TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State September 18, Tulsa 277
3. Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State September 3, Northwest 265
4. Chase Brown, Illinois Oct. 2 Charlotte 257
5. Mataeo Durant, Duke Sept. 3 Charlotte 255
6. Deandre Torrey, North Texas, Sept. 4, Northwest State 244
7. Chris Smith, Louisiana October 21, Arkansas State 238
8. Christian Anderson, Army September 25, Miami, Ohio 236
9. Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State Oct. 9 Rutgers 233
10. Chase Brown, Illinois October 23rd Penn State 223