When Pat Fitzgerald predicted "tough sledding in Madison" this weekend, he wasn't making a literal reference to the anticipated snow during the Northwestern-Wisconsin game at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Wildcats coach was predicting the outcome would be determined up front on both sides of the ball. And he probably is correct.
No. 20 Northwestern (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) has managed to get by this season with a fluid, makeshift offensive line that has been decimated by injuries. In their two losses, the Wildcats got bullied up front by Michigan and Iowa.
Now they face the nation's top scoring defense (12.3 points per game) and third-ranked total defense (272 yards per game) in the No. 25 Badgers (8-2, 5-1). Linebacker Joe Schobert, seventh in the country with 91/2 sacks, and his mates will put the latest incarnation of the NU line to the test.
"This is as good a defense ... I mean, we have played some great ones," Fitzgerald said, also listing Michigan, Iowa and Penn State among others. "So it is going to be a huge challenge this week."
A challenge made greater by the Wildcats' shortage of healthy bodies up front. NU has started nine players on the offensive line this season, none in the same spot all year.
"We want to find the best five," offensive line coach Adam Cushing said. "Not just the best two tackles and the best two guards. The best five. We'll figure it out after that."
Geoff Mogus, who has eight starts at left tackle and left guard, and Shane Mertz, who started the first seven games at right guard and the last game at left guard in place of Mogus, have been ruled out for Saturday with injuries. Center Ian Park sat out the Purdue game last week.
Adam DePietro suffered a season-ending knee injury during his lone start at right tackle against Eastern Illinois in Week 2. Matt Frazier endured a series of serious offseason surgeries and illnesses before returning midseason to start five of the last six games at left guard and right guard.
Redshirt freshman Blake Hance has taken over at left tackle. Park and Brad North have played center and guard. Converted tight end Connor Mahoney likely will make his fourth start at left guard Saturday with Mogus and Mertz out.
"Guys are going down and people are stepping up, and you really don't notice too much of a drop-off," said junior Eric Olson, who has been the closest thing to a fixture with nine starts at right tackle.
"We had a new group of five guys starting last week, and then one of them (Mertz) goes down and Connor comes in and played well. He was ready to go. That's a testament to all of our preparation."
That group opened holes for Justin Jackson to rush for 116 yards against the Boilermakers. While the Badgers lead the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 97.3 yards per game, Jackson was able to run for 162 yards against them last year in a 20-14 NU upset in Evanston.
"Honestly, I trust everyone who is up there," Jackson said. "When I am reading my keys, I'm trusting that they are going to do their job, no matter who is in there. I thought Brad stepped in very well for Ian (at center) last game, and obviously Blake has earned a starting spot at left tackle."
Olson said his devotion to his craft extends to concentrating on other linemen when most fans watch the skill-position players.
"When I am watching the NFL and other college games, I focus on the tackles and I watch the offensive line," Olson said. "I am still following the ball, but I find myself seeing what is going on in the trenches. It is usually a good indication of who is winning that game."