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CHAMPAIGN — Illinois’ intent was clear the first time it lined up with seven offensive linemen and two tight ends Saturday at Penn State.

The Illini had clearly used the bye week to tinker with their offensive scheme. And two weeks after essentially abandoning its running game against Wisconsin’s top-ranked run defense — to seriously poor result — Illinois leaned in to what it had done best all season.

Handoffs to Chase Brown and Josh McCray. This time behind a cavalcade of blockers that sometimes included Michael Marchese lining up as a true fullback.

It was a success.

Brown carried the ball 33 times for 223 yards and Illinois’ lone touchdown. McCray added 24 carries for 142 yards. And the Illini knocked off then-No. 7 Penn State 20-18 for its best win of the season and first road victory against a top-10 team in 14 years.

“We wanted to be the most physical unit on the team when we were out there,” Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said. “We wanted to be able to get the ball in our running backs’ hands and run the football. It worked out for us. … It’s great to have two backs out there we feel like can handle the ball that much — especially when we do run the ball that amount of times. I can’t say enough good things about our running backs, and if you’re going to talk about the running backs you have to talk about the offensive line and tight ends and the job they did on Saturday.”

Relying almost solely on Brown and McCray in the run game developed during the course of the season. Illinois entered 2021 with a handful of running backs it felt comfortable using. Then Mike Epstein was lost for the season after two games and Brown and McCray became the consistent 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 one touchdown and ranks 10th nationally among freshmen for rushing yards.

Brown and McCray have gotten close since the latter arrived on campus in the summer. And the veteran Illini running back has served something of a mentor role for the 6-1, 240-pound freshman out of Enterprise, Ala.

“I just wanted to be that big brother to help him out and make everything easier for him,” Brown said.

That includes plenty of time in the film room together.

Brown and McCray have different styles and see the game in different ways. Add in Brown’s experience both at Western Michigan in 2018 and at Illinois since, and McCray has learned plenty.

“I pick up a lot from Chase in film study,” McCray said. “He sees a lot of things different like cuts, like holes. He opens up my eyes more. I really think that helps me a lot in games.”

The biggest impact Brown has had on McCray’s game, though?

“Footwork,” McCray said. “Footwork from Chase. He’s got god-like feet. Chase probably has the best feet I’ve ever seen.”

Brown and McCray’s combined success in the win at Penn State built with one big carry after another. Brown averaged 6.8 yards per carry — right at his season average — while McCray did better than his season average at 5.9 yards per carry.

Their collective effort wore down the Penn State defense to the tune of 357 total rushing yards when accounting for minus-8 yards from Art Sitkowski despite a number of successful quarterback sneaks.

“It doesn’t give the defense a break,” Brown said. “We have two different running styles, but we complement each other really well. … It wears on them, right, when they’re just taking a pounding and have to fit up on our linemen like that the entire time. It’s not easy.”

Illinois’ 67 rushing attempts at Penn State was a season high and 17 more than the next highest total three weeks prior against Charlotte when Brown had his other 200-plus yards rushing performance of the season.

Petersen said he used the “Barge” package with seven offensive linemen more than he expected because of its success, but he was fine calling more than three times as many rushing plays as passing plays against the Nittany Lions.

“It doesn’t bother me at all to keep calling run plays for 4 and 5 yards,” Petersen said. “If that happens in future games and we can run the ball like we did on Saturday, we’ll continue with those type of calls. That doesn’t bother me at all. That’s awesome.”

Moving the chains

Chase Brown now has two of the top 10 rushing performances in the country this season after he helped lead Illinois to an upset win at then-No. 7 Penn State. The full list after the first eight weeks of the regular season:

PLAYER, TEAM DATE OPPONENT YARDS

1. Tyrion Davis-Price, LSU Oct. 16 Florida 287

2. TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State Sept. 18 Tulsa 277

3. Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State Sept. 3 Northwestern 265

4. Chase Brown, Illinois Oct. 2 Charlotte 257

5. Mataeo Durant, Duke Sept. 3 Charlotte 255

6. Deandre Torrey, North Texas Sept. 4 Northwestern State 244

7. Chris Smith, Louisiana Oct. 21 Arkansas State 238

8. Christian Anderson, Army Sept. 25 Miami (Ohio) 236

9. Kenneth Walker III, Michigan State Oct. 9 Rutgers 233

10. Chase Brown, Illinois Oct. 23 Penn State 223

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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