Irish vs Badgers: a heavyweight clash

When it comes to producing quality NFL offensive linemen, Notre Dame and Wisconsin have been among the best programs in the country.

The Fighting Irish have 12 offensive linemen on the NFL rosters to start this season and the Badgers have eight.

Quality offensive lineman has become such an identifiable part of success in Notre Dame and Wisconsin that linemen on both teams landed a sponsorship deal with a chain of barbecue restaurants this summer.

Great men on campus, indeed.

Notre Dame No.12 (3-0) faces Wisconsin No.18 (1-1) today at Solider Field in Chicago in a game billed as the Jack Coan Bowl for the former Badgers quarterback who starts now for the Irish.

But the guys lining up in front of Coan were the big story at Notre Dame. One of the best offensive line factories in the country struggled to make its latest model fully operational.

After replacing four current NFL linemen, the Fighting Irish allowed 14 sacks, tied for second in the country, and did not open any holes for the running game. Wisconsin’s defense will be the toughest test yet for Notre Dame’s rebuilt line.

“Without a doubt. We’re going to introduce ourselves anyway,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said with a laugh.

Notre Dame had three different starters on the left tackle after much-vaunted freshman Blake Fisher injured himself in Game 1 against Florida State. He remains out and his initial replacement, Michael Carmody, is a game-time decision, Kelly said.

The Irish are simultaneously trying to find the best combination of players up front and develop depth with inexperienced players such as sophomore Tosh Baker, who started on left tackle last week, and student from freshman Joe Alt. Kelly said he was optimistic about the future of these players, but the reality is that the future is now.

“So look, we’re transitioning on the offensive line, but we’re so excited with the young players and the veterans playing their ass as we go through this transition on the offensive line,” said Kelly.

The Badgers enter the game with just four sacks, but they recover one of their best pass rushers in linebacker Leo Chenal, who missed the first two games after testing positive for covid-19. Chenal had three sacks in seven games last season and should bolster Wisconsin’s rush to accompany the inside push from tackles Matt Henningsen and Keeanu Benton.

“He’s a little weird, athletic, we know that,” Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said of Chenal. “He’s a big guy playing this position. Find ways to bring him down and ruin a game for an offense.”

Chez Mellusi of Wisconsin celebrates his touchdown run during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Penn State on Saturday, September 4, 2021 in Madison, Wisconsin. Penn State won 16-10. (AP Photo / Morry Gash)

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly walks up to a squad as his team take on Toledo in the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana on Saturday, September 11, 2021. Notre Dame Dame won 32-29.  (AP Photo / AJ Mast)

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly walks up to a squad as his team take on Toledo in the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana on Saturday, September 11, 2021. Notre Dame Dame won 32-29. (AP Photo / AJ Mast)

East Michigan's Freddie McGee III breaks a pass intended for Wisconsin's Danny Davis III during the second half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, September 11, 2021 in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo / Morry Gash)

East Michigan’s Freddie McGee III breaks a pass intended for Wisconsin’s Danny Davis III during the second half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, September 11, 2021 in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo / Morry Gash)

Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst watches during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Eastern Michigan on Saturday September 11, 2021 in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo / Morry Gash)

Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst watches during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Eastern Michigan on Saturday, September 11, 2021 in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo / Morry Gash)

Notre Dame wide receiver Avery Davis (3) scores a touchdown on the way to a touchdown against Purdue during the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana on Saturday, September 18, 2021. Notre Dame defeated Purdue 27-13.  (AP Photo / Michael Conroy)

Notre Dame wide receiver Avery Davis (3) scores a touchdown en route to a touchdown against Purdue in the second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana on Saturday, September 18, 2021. Notre Dame defeated Purdue 27-13. (AP Photo / Michael Conroy)

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (23) shows up for a touchdown in front of Purdue linebacker Jalen Graham (6) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, In. 'Indiana, Saturday, September 18, 2021 (AP Photo / Michael Conroy)

Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams (23) shows up for a touchdown in front of Purdue linebacker Jalen Graham (6) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, In. ‘Indiana, Saturday, September 18, 2021 (AP Photo / Michael Conroy)

Notre Dame wide receiver Avery Davis (3) manages a catch between Purdue safety Cam Allen (10) and linebacker Jalen Graham (6) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana, Saturday, September 18.  2021. (AP Photo / Michael Conroy)

Notre Dame wide receiver Avery Davis (3) manages a catch between Purdue safety Cam Allen (10) and linebacker Jalen Graham (6) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Indiana, Saturday, September 18. 2021. (AP Photo / Michael Conroy)

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Gail Mena

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