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NU’s offensive linemen embrace ‘Big Cats’ nickname

Northwestern running back Venric Mark (5) celebrates touchdown with teammates during first half an NCAA college football game against South

Northwestern running back Venric Mark (5) celebrates a touchdown with teammates during the first half of an NCAA college football game against South Dakota in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: November 6, 2012 6:19AM

They no longer thought the nickname ‘‘Hogs’’ was appropriate, so Northwestern’s offensive linemen started referring to themselves as ‘‘Big Cats’’ because
they thought that term was
more reflective of their athletic ability.

‘‘We don’t feel like we’re a bunch of hogs,’’ guard Brian Mulroe said. ‘‘Hogs go to slaughter; cats rule the jungle. Everybody has embraced that from the
aspect of we’re going to use our athletic ability, and we’re also
going to use our conditioning.’’

There’s no practical way to prove the Wildcats have the best-conditioned offensive line in college football. But if a line
anchored by Mulroe, center Brandon Vitabile and left tackle Patrick Ward believe that to be true, that’s all that matters.

The ‘‘Big Cats’’ have controlled the line of scrimmage in NU’s first five games, helping the team average 256 rushing yards, which ranks second in the Big Ten and ninth in the nation. Quarterback/receiver Kain Colter and running backs Venric Mark and Mike Trumpy average 5.5 yards per carry and have five 100-yard rushing performances in the Wildcats’ last four games.

An offensive line that’s at its best when playing fast will face its most formidable front seven yet when NU visits Penn State on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

‘‘We take a lot of pride in being able to run 100 plays in a game,’’ offensive line coach Adam Cushing said. ‘‘That’s a great thing for an offensive line. Knowing the defensive line is tired, too, and finding a way to get one more play and go even faster. Tempo is a big advantage for our style of offense. We have to have ­offensive linemen who not only can do it conditioning-wise but who buy in that that’s our advantage. This whole group has bought in. That’s why they’re in the type of condition they’re in.’’

Cushing knew he had experience returning in three critical spots. Mulroe, Vitabile and Ward had combined to start 66 games, even if Ward would be moving from right to left tackle. The other two spots were less certain, but guards Neal Deiters and Chuck Porcelli and right tackle Jack Konopka have played well.

Konopka’s performance has been particularly impressive, considering he played superback last season.

‘‘Chuck and Neal have been around, and they’re playing great,’’ Mulroe said. ‘‘They have good veteran [mentalities], and Jack has picked up the flag. As a guy coming from the superback role, he’s really done a good job over there just using his athletic ability. The main thing is they’re focusing. They’re big, athletic, strong dudes, but it helps a lot that they’re focused mentally.’’

Coach Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t look for the 330-pound mammoths other schools target when he’s recruiting. He seeks players who can move their feet, are relentless and will embrace the kind of conditioning it takes to be effective during a 12-play drive without benefit of a huddle.

‘‘We’re never going to let anyone get down or get tired,’’ Mulroe said. ‘‘Everybody is going to keep pushing each other. We’re never satisfied until we get in the end zone or get points.’’

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