As if the past 2 weeks weren’t demoralizing enough for Illinois and its fans. Now, the Illini may be without their nation-leading running back heading into its toughest challenge of the season.

Chase Brown, who leads the nation in rushing with 1,442 yards, went down late in Illinois’ 31-24 loss to Purdue with a right leg injury. Brown had trouble putting weight on his injured leg, but was later seen walking off the field at the conclusion of the game.

The Illini are already shorthanded at RB as backup Josh McCrary was in a walking boot and didn’t play against the Boilermakers.

Leader of the offense

It’s been a storybook season for Brown in 2022. He’s the undisputed leader of the Illini offense.

His 2 TDs on Saturday pushed his season total to 10. He has gone over 100 yards on the ground in every game but last Saturday. Brown was 2 yards shy vs. Purdue, but added 32 yards receiving on 3 catches.

He’s carried a hefty load through 10 games. His 280 carries lead the nation. He’s been a reliable workhorse. But even the biggest, strongest of guys can only take so much pounding on a weekly basis.

Offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. has done a decent job of getting him breaks. Reggie Love played 2 series in the opening half, getting 4 carries. But make no mistake, Brown’s been the bell cow all year. If he’s out this coming week, it drastically changes the look of the Illini offense.

More involvement from Hightower and Williams

One option for Lunney is to try to involve a pair of receivers in Isaiah Williams and Brian Hightower more.

Hightower posted his best numbers of the year with 5 catches for 89 yards and a TD. His 33-yard catch on Illinois opening TD drive showed the offense was willing to stretch the field. More of that is needed this week to keep the staunch Michigan defense honest.

Four times, Williams has grabbed 9 balls in a game. He had back-to-back 9-catch games in wins over Minnesota and Nebraska. He snared 2 TDs a weekend ago against Michigan State.

But Purdue clamped down on the talented Williams, holding him to 16 yards on 3 catches. He was never able to shake free and create the open field matchups he loves.

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Lunney must be creative this week in his game plan. Especially if Brown is unable to go. Look for Lunney to use play action and shallow routes to get his playmakers open. Quarterback Tommy DeVito will need time to deliver the ball. Can’t let the Wolverines pin their ears back and tee off on him.

Lean on the defense

The talented Illini defense has taken a few body blows the past 2 weeks. The unit surrendered 26 and 28 points respectively at home. DC Ryan Walters will need his crew to be at its best in Ann Arbor to give Illinois a fighting chance at the upset.

Officiating was a top talking point after the Purdue loss. Five times the Illini were called for pass interference. They’d only been flagged 4 times in the previous 9 games. It’s a physical unit on the back end, and if the officials call it tight, they’ll have to adjust.

Jer’Zhan Newton and the Illini defensive front have an enormous task in taking on a disciplined and talented Wolverines’ offensive line. Add running back Blake Corum to the mix and it adds up to the tallest task all season for Walters’ unit.

That unit will need to be much more disciplined. More thorough in responsibilities in order to slow down the JJ McCarthy-led Michigan offense.

But coach Bret Bielema knows what it takes to pull upsets in this league. Run the ball, shorten the game. Play keep away from the other team. He has the defense to do it. But we won’t know until later in the week if his star running back will be able to be part of the equation.

Forget the past, focus on the present

Maybe the best message Bielema can relay to his team this week is this: Forget the past. We can’t change it. Control the things you can.

“When you’re in season you really only focus on the now,” Bielema said after Saturday’s loss. “Whether you’re 4-1, 5-1, 6-1 or 7-1, it really doesn’t change how we approach the work week.”

That narrative will be put to the test this week. Yes, it’s tempting to focus on the what-ifs of the Michigan State and Purdue losses. The weather. The officials. Bad breaks, etc.

But the Illini can’t let the disappointment linger any longer. The focus has to be on the challenge at the Big House. Pull a stunner in Ann Arbor and the West Division is likely still theirs.

Whether Brown is able to go or not, can’t be the entire focus. It’s a huge story. One to keep an eye on throughout the week.

But the Illini didn’t win 7 of their first 8 games on the back of 1 guy. It’s been a collaborative effort. They’ll need all hands on deck as they try to pull an upset for the ages.