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Watch now: Illinois chooses 'combo platter' Josh McCray, Chase Brown as top two running backs
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Watch now: Illinois chooses 'combo platter' Josh McCray, Chase Brown as top two running backs

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CHAMPAIGN — A big play was coming for Josh McCray. Illinois coach Bret Bielema could sense it.

The true freshman running back made his college debut against UTSA on Sept. 4, nearly broke free for a big gain at Virginia on Sept. 11 and on Friday against Maryland it all came to fruition.

"I told him on Wednesday of last week, 'This is the week. You're gonna make a play, you're gonna do something that's gonna go to the crib,'" Bielema said Monday.

McCray, fulfilling Bielema's prediction, ripped off a 38-yard touchdown run in the third quarter that tied the game and brought Illini fans to their feet at Memorial Stadium. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound freshman broke four arm tackles on the way to his first college TD, and when he was asked if arm tackles work against him, he quickly dismissed the idea.

"No, I'm from 'Bama," McCray said Tuesday, smiling. "Arm tackles don't phase me."

The freshman's dazzling run came right after an impressive 21-yard reception from fellow tailback Chase Brown, who eluded Maryland defensive back Jakorian Bennett and made him fall with a vicious juke move.

"Chase, he's shifty. He's pretty shifty," McCray said. "I want to be like him."

The Terrapins would eventually prevail 20-17, but after the game Bielema said he liked the "combo platter" of Brown and McCray.

On Monday, offensive coordinator Tony Petersen announced that the "combo platter" is now the main course.

"If we stay healthy moving forward, that's probably the two main guys that you'll see in the running back position," Petersen said. "Not saying Reggie Love (III) can't be in there and Jakari Norwood and they've got things they can do, and Reggie had a good game (against Maryland) and Jakari had some good plays. (But) you can't play four running backs."

Brown and McCray both amassed 100 yards of total offense last week. McCray had a 40-yard catch, which Bielema said was a mistake, to go along with eight carries for 60 rushing yards.

"The pass play was a bust," Bielema said Monday. "The great players I've been around are the ones that even when it's wrong, it's right."

Brown, an All-Big Ten Third Team honoree by the media last year, recorded a team-high 14 carries for 57 rushing yards and two catches for a team-high 54 receiving yards.

He and McCray were both knocked out of the game in the third quarter with undisclosed injuries and did not return. McCray was taken to the hospital for a "precautionary evaluation," according to Bielema, but he said both players will be ready to go Saturday at Purdue.

McCray said it was tough to not only leave the game but the stadium while his squad was in a back-and-forth contest. The freshman wasn't able to watch the game and kept asking the doctors and medical staff to update him on the score. When he found out Illinois lost on a last-second field, it was a tough pill for him to swallow.

Saturday presents another opportunity for the team to snag a conference victory, and after missing some of the action last week, McCray is thankful for the chance to get back out there and shoulder the running back load with Brown.

"Chase, that's my homeboy," McCray said. "We tight, we super tight. He helps me with everything."


Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid

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