- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A few players to keep an eye on as No. 16 Ohio State opens up the stretch run in the Big Ten with a primetime matchup against Illinois.
RB Ezekiel Elliott: The touchdown vulture is gone now that Rod Smith is no longer with the program, so the sophomore tailback should see more action in the red zone and a chance to add a few scores to his resume. Elliott has looked increasingly dangerous as the season has progressed thanks to his growing confidence and extra experience, and after racking up 109 yards against Penn State's stout rush defense, he should run wild against the worst total defense in the Big Ten on Saturday night. With J.T. Barrett nursing a knee sprain, Elliott figures to have a heavy workload -- and Smith is no longer around to poach a few of his touchdowns.
DT Adolphus Washington: The junior was a force up front a week ago, turning in one of the finest performances of his career as he continues to thrive on the interior. He has embraced a role taking on blockers and helping open up playmaking opportunities for teammates, but Washington still has used his strength and speed to bust into the backfield and disrupt offenses on his own on occasion. He has 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks to his credit despite doing a lot of dirty work in the trenches, and Illinois will have to account for Washington if it hopes to generate much with the football.
WR Michael Thomas: Barrett is expected to play, and coach Urban Meyer has stressed all week that there's no concern about the knee injury impacting the passing game. And since the knee sprain could limit Barrett's mobility, that should mean the ball will be coming out of his hands quickly and a bit more often than it did a week ago. The most likely beneficiary of that tweak to the attack should be Thomas, who has been a handful for defensive backs this season after building himself into a more complete receiver during his surprising redshirt year as a sophomore. Thomas already leads the Buckeyes with 22 catches and five touchdowns, and he figures to add to both totals against the Illini.