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Having turned its season around, offensive line prepares for toughest test of the season

The Badgers have talent all over their defense. The guys up front will have their hands full.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Neither redshirt freshman left guard J.B. Butler nor junior center Brad North would take the bait.

Is Wisconsin the toughest test this year?

“I think every week is our biggest test,” North said. “We’re focused on Wisconsin right now.”

“Every week is a new challenge,” Butler echoed.

So much for that narrative.

But that’s not what the numbers say.

The numbers will tell you that this is indeed the toughest defense Northwestern will have faced to date. The Badgers are fourth in the nation in defensive S&P+ — eighth in rushing, sixth in passing and third in Isolated Points Per Play Plus (a measurement of explosiveness) — and third in points per game allowed. At every level, the defense is exceptional, with talented players everywhere.

And that’s caught the attention of the two linemen in question.

“They’re hard-working, blue-collar guys,” North said. “They’re gonna play their ass off and get to the ball every single play. They may not be the biggest guys, but the film that we’ve seen, they’re savages. They’re good ballplayers.”

Both players expressed the importance of setting the tone of physicality early and then “taking it up a notch,” hammering away at a group that brings top effort every snap. In Wisconsin’s two losses (to Michigan and Ohio State), both opponents just kept pounding and pounding on the ground; the Wolverines ran it 44 times, the Buckeyes 45.

For Northwestern, a similar route to success might be necessary. In its three October wins, the Wildcats ran the ball 42, 51 and 44 times against Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana. Against Ohio State, the Wildcats only ran it 29 times.

As we’ve seen, this offense is at its best when it runs the ball early and then grinds on the ground. Despite possessing a high-flying attack through the air, the Wildcats are 0-3 in games in which they throw it more than they run, with two of those three losses coming in the first month.

But after a loss to Nebraska, Pat Fitzgerald went back to the basics at all levels, especially on the offensive line. The benefits have been obvious: The number of holding penalties are way down. After surrendering 15 sacks in the first four weeks, the offensive line has given up six in the last four weeks, including just one each to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State. After averaging a miserable 3.1 yards per rush in the first month of the season, Northwestern averaged 4.1 in October.

It was both a mental and a physical adjustment that helped turn the season around.

“To build a house, you have to have a foundation,” North said of the physical, fundamentals-heavy practices. “We just realized it wasn’t good enough.”

For Butler, who got his first career start in place of the injured Connor Mahoney against Michigan State and has performed admirably since, holding onto his job even with Mahoney back and healthy, it was all about the group believing in itself.

“We’re gonna go run our stuff and trust us to block people instead of trying to perfect everything in practice,” he said. “I think that makes us play a lot faster, play a lot more physical, and it’s easier to play.”

And now in a game with legitimate Big Ten West implications, the group that was one of the worst in the nation a month ago will line up across from a unit that has traditionally been one of the best.

“I think we played poorly up front in three of the first four games — very poorly, frankly,” Fitzgerald told BTN. “I think we’ve moved in the average to maybe slightly above-average category with that group. So there’s been a lot of improvement, but we’re still not where we want to be.”

But on Saturday, the group will have to take another major step forward.

“This group is a joy to watch,” Fitzgerald said of the Wisconsin defense. “Great with their hands, great with their feet, violent with their ability to take on and get off blocks.”

Not every block will be executed perfectly on Saturday. Not every play will be a positive one. It’ll be how Northwestern responds to those mistakes, though, that determines its fate.

“I think we’re just cutting it loose, and saying ‘You know what? If you make a mistake you’re going to have another chance,’” Butler said. “That’s what we’ve done the past couple weeks... and we’ve ended up winning some games.”

And Fitzgerald even admitted this would be the toughest test for the line, even if Butler and North wouldn’t budge on that notion. But for Northwestern to pull off a season-defining win this weekend, it’ll start up front, just like its stunning October turnaround did.

What better place for it to start then up front?