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Players to Watch: Illinois

The Fighting Illini have some legit playmakers to keep an eye on this weekend

NCAA Football: Purdue at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours! It probably isn’t quite the celebration we are all used to, but as long as you and your family are happy and healthy there is still a ton to be thankful for.

It isn’t your typical game week for Ohio State during this time of year either. We have grown so accustomed to this being rivalry week, and The Game has grown into just as much a tradition of the weekend as turkey and stuffing. That being said, there is still Buckeye football on Saturday, as Ryan Day and the gang will take on Illinois at noon.

So, whether you need something to pass the time before dinner is ready or you’re trying to avoid a political debate with your uncle, why not read up on the Fighting Illini on this fine Thursday evening?

Offensive Player to Watch: Josh Imatorbhebhe

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois air attack has not been the team’s strong suit through their 2-3 start on the year, ranking 113th in the country in passing offense. However, what little they’ve been able to accomplish through the air this season has mostly been a result of wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe. A former four-star prospect and transfer from USC, Imatorbhebhe burst onto the scene as a junior in 2019, and he has not looked back since as the Illini’s top playmaker.

In addition to having an awesome name, Imatorbhebhe has been awesome on the field. His breakout season a year ago saw him haul in 33 receptions for 634 yards and nine touchdowns in an otherwise vertically challenged offense. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound receiver is off to a great start once again this season, leading Illinois with 15 catches for 215 yards and two scores through five games. With the return of starting QB Brandon Peters from COVID-19 last week against Nebraska, Imatorbhebhe had one of his better performances this year, catching four passes for 71 yards and a TD.

While Imatorbhebhe is likely the most talented player on the team, the real bread and butter for this Illinois offense is their two-headed rushing attack of Chase Brown and Mike Epstein. The Illini rank 29th in the country on the ground, with both running backs averaging around six yards per carry on the season — Brown with 61 carries for 357 yards and 2 TDs and Epstein with 55 touches for 338 yards and four scores.

Ohio State has been strong against the run all season long, but this will be one of their bigger tests in that regard. The secondary will also have to step its game up if they want to keep Imatorbhebhe out of the end zone.

Defensive Player to Watch: Jake Hansen

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Illinois at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Illinois defense has not been great so far this season, but they have turned things around a bit in their last two games. After allowing an average of 39 points through the team’s first three contests (all losses), the Illini have allowed just 20 and 23 points their last two times out (both wins). A big reason for their success of late has been the play of their linebackers, led once again by Jake Hansen.

One of Illinois’ best players on the defensive side of the ball a year ago, Hansen finished the 2019 campaign with 71 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, an interception and a whopping seven forced fumbles. He is off to another hot start in this his senior season, leading the team with 44 total tackles including 6.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and two picks. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker has a real knack for knocking the ball loose, with another two forced fumbles so far this year.

Hansen has some help this year from all over the field. Defensive lineman Owen Carney Jr. is having a breakout season as a senior, already setting career-highs with 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks through four games. In the secondary, defensive backs Tony Adams and Devon Witherspoon have been the top dogs. Adams is second on the team in tackles with 44 and had an interception last week against the Cornhuskers, while Witherspoon has a pair of INTs on the year to go along with 19 tackles and a fumble recovery.

As a whole, the Illini rank ninth in the country in turnover margin, and so Ohio State will have to be more careful with the ball than they were against Indiana. While this should be a game the Buckeyes roll through quite easily, there will be some key areas to watch where they could be tested.