CHAMPAIGN — Chase Brown, like any player, doesn't like being on the sidelines, but that's exactly where he was during Illinois' 37-30 home loss to UTSA on Sept. 4. The sophomore running back dressed for warmups against the Roadrunners but was held out with an undisclosed injury.
In Brown's absence, redshirt freshman Reggie Lovie III, sophomore Jakari Norwood and fifth-year senior Mike Epstein each had one carry for at least 17 yards or more, and true freshman Josh McCray made his college debut.
"It was really cool seeing the guys get in there and do their thing because they were all really killing it, but it was hard because I want to play, I want to contribute," Brown said Tuesday. "When I'm sitting out like that, I just feel like I can't do anything for the team, but my whole thing was bringing energy to practice and making sure that we get good momentum going into the game."
Brown, who was named All-Big Ten third team by the media last year, returned Saturday in the Illini's 42-14 loss at Virginia. He recorded team highs of seven carries for 41 yards and one touchdown.
"It felt really good," Brown said of reaching the end zone for the first time this year and fourth time in his college career. "The biggest thing about that play is that if you go back and watch it, it was blocked perfectly, and all I really had to do was make one cut at the end there and put it through the goal line."
Brown's 21-yard run capped off a four-play, 75-yard drive on Illinois' first possession of the third quarter, cutting the deficit against the Cavaliers to 21-14. However, the Illini never scored again as Virginia, which jumped out to a 14-0 lead less than five minutes into the game, cruised to its 10th straight non-conference home victory.
Illinois has gotten off to slow offensive starts through its first three games, scoring a combined two points in the first quarter, but Brown believes the team is capable of replicating its third-quarter drive against Virginia earlier in games.
"Execution," Brown said. "Everybody doing their job, making sure we're sound offensively."
Brown said he's re-watched the Virginia loss at least three times to learn from his mistakes, and one of them was an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the third quarter.
After a seven-yard rush, Brown said something to a Cavaliers player while going back to his team's huddle, resulting in the 15-yard foul. The sophomore took responsibility for his actions and said he must be smarter going forward.
"It's definitely something I shouldn't do. The penalty was called, I should've kept my mouth shut and that's the best way to move on from that," Brown said. "When you're going up against a team that talks, you can't retaliate like that."
Brown's penalty was the first of three unsportsmanlike conduct fouls the Illini received in the second half. Linebackers Isaiah Gay and Tarique Barnes were flagged for the other two in the fourth quarter after shoving Virginia players right in front of the officials.
First-year Illinois coach Bret Bielema said he spoke with Brown, Gay and Barnes about those fouls and expects the entire team to keep a cooler head in the future.
"We had 90 yards in penalties and 45 of them came on three different plays," Bielema said Monday. "We're not going to be able to win very many football games (if that happens). That definitely got addressed. As a head coach, I can always address those things right when they happen, but usually I'm hot and they're obviously hot, so it's usually never a great situation to learn from (in the moment), so we took a deep breath and I addressed that individually with those players on Sunday. Pretty sure that will be something that at least those three and hopefully our team won't do again."
KEDPLASMA USA, a plasma collection company with a donation center in Urbana, has sponsored free student tickets for Friday's home game against Maryland.
According to an Illinois press release, over 8,000 university students have claimed their free tickets. Students who were already season ticket holders are still able to get one free ticket for a guest.