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Illinois football takes a healthy Chase Brown and faint title hopes into rivalry week

CHAMPAIGN — Entering the final week of the regular season on a three-game losing streak, there is still a glimmer of hope for the Illinois division’s title hopes.

Illinois would need Nebraska to beat Iowa on Friday, then Purdue would need to lose to Indiana on Saturday while the Illini beat rival Northwestern (2:30 p.m. BTN).

To look after his end of the deal, Illinois got a boost when star running back Chase Brown recovered from his ankle injury against Purdue. He came back against Michigan with two touchdowns that almost gave them an upset win.

“I give our medical staff all the credit in the world,” said coach Bret Bielema. “Chase came into my office on the Tuesday before my mom died and he said, ‘Coach, I’m playing Saturday. I don’t want anybody to make a big deal out of it.” He just is. I wouldn’t have put her in there unless he was 100% ready and obviously today he was more than ready to go.”

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Illinois running back Chase Brown (2) runs the ball against Michigan on Saturday in Ann Arbor. Brown is looking to cement his place as the regular-season rushing champion.

Associated Press

Now Brown is gearing up for what will likely be his last regular season game for the Illini.

“I knew all week that if I wanted to play in this one, I had to attack it,” Brown said after the Michigan game. “They are a competitive team. I didn’t want to go out there if I didn’t think I could be at least 95 percent. Every day I felt better and better. (Saturday) I made the decision to play.”

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Michigan running back Blake Corum (2) is stopped by Illinois defensive lineman Jer’Zhan Newton (4) and linebacker Tarique Barnes (8) in the first half on Sunday.

Paul Sancy, Associated Press

Brown will have an opportunity to secure the regular-season rushing crown by a slim margin over Minnesota’s Mo Ibrahim, who heads into the final week of the season. He’ll be a good bet to make that happen if he performs like he has for most of the season in 100-yard games in 10 of Illinois’ 11 contests.

“I was pretty confident that he was ready to protect himself and play well, and I wasn’t at all surprised to see him fight the way he did,” said offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. “I don’t think so that one of us followed him and saw how he played this year. Sometimes our line did a really good job of covering and moving him. Obviously the way he ran the ball, I don’t know if it was expected, we all reached a certain level of expectation with him.

One area Illinois needs to improve on at the end of the season is consistency in the special teams phase. Punter Hugh Robertson had a 30-yard punt to set the Wolverines up in midfield before their final drive and had a season of ups and downs in his first run as a starting punter.

“Hugh (Robertson) was very efficient at certain stages but those who weren’t hit well influenced us, even since Saturday,” Bielema said. “I think overall the effectiveness of our kicking game reflects very similarly what it’s doing on offense and defense. If we play well in one phase, we do well overall.”

That carryover was absent during the team’s three-game losing streak, with penalties on either side of the ball also contributing.

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Illinois head coach Bret Bielema watches against Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday. Bielema coached the game just two days after his mother’s death.

Paul Sancy, Associated Press

Illinois has a regular season game and a bowl game to address these issues.

“Those last three games that we lost were kind of a small segment in all areas of offense, defense and special teams,” Bielema said. “It’s that area in offensive plays, it’s that in defensive plays, it’s that in special teams. We’re not a football team right now that can be dysfunctional and still win games.

Follow Anderson Kimball on Twitter at: byAndy Kimball

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