Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, who have each twice been named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week this season, have been a dynamic backbone for the Wisconsin defense, a big reason No.15 Wisconsin finds itself in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game against No.11 Michigan State here at Lucas Oil Field with a chance to go back to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl.
"Chris Borland was moved to a new position everybody had their opinions on where he should be," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "He has just continued to accelerate and probably played his best game on Saturday because he played within the scheme and made the calls and made the reactions.
"Mike Taylor has been very impressive," Bielema added. "I don't know of a time I've ever seen the number one and number two tackler at the same position in the conference. That's a great tribute to him on the same account."
Taylor leads the Big Ten in tackles with 128, a mark that led the Big Ten and is eighth in the country. Against Ohio State in October, Taylor recorded 22 tackles, the most by any Big Ten player this season and the most by a UW player since Bob Adamov had 23 against Purdue in 1998. Taylor's dedication, leadership and hard work shows during games, but it all starts on the practice field.
"Mike Taylor is kind of a silent leader," linebacker coach Dave Huxtable said. "Mike is all business. He's a tremendous worker and he's done a great job this year. He comes to work every day and is one of those blue-collar type of guys."
Just behind Taylor in tackles is Chris Borland, who has 124. Leading the Badgers with 16.5 tackles for loss (fifth in the Big Ten, 17th in the nation), Borland is also tied at second place with four forced fumbles in the Big Ten. Like Taylor, Borland exudes hard work, leadership and dedication on the field.
"He's a great leader," Huxtable said. "He's a great teammate. He encourages guys. I think he inspires guys with the way he acts and comes to work every day. He's a great inspiration to our defensive unit and I think Chris is a tremendous player who has just gotten better and better throughout the year."
With so many similarities and solid numbers, it was far from shocking when Borland, the 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, was a consensus first-team pick while Taylor was named first-team All-Big Ten by the media and a second-team selection by the coaches.
"I think it's a tremendous honor to Chris and Mike both to receive that award," Huxtable said. "It's a great individual award but really football is all about team and they couldn't have done that without the guys around them doing their job with the defensive line up front who Chris and Mike both play behind. It's an individual honor given to them and I think they are worthy of that honor. I think they have done a tremendous job, but the real picture is that there were a lot of guys around them to help them to achieve that."
Since the last meeting between Michigan State and Wisconsin, both teams have changed plays as well as improved overall. After the Badgers allowed 30-plus points in back-to-back weeks for the first time since 2008 in their two losses, Wisconsin hasn't allowed an offense to score a point.
"I feel like we have improved," linebacker Chris Borland said. "Something we pride ourselves on is getting better as the season wears on with conditioning and the way we approach practice. I feel like we are a better team. I'm sure they are too. We feel better, but it is going to be a challenge."
A challenge indeed, but playing Michigan State previously this year has its advantages.
"They are a great team and we understood that going into the first matchup," Borland said. "I think playing them once gives you a better perspective of what they do obviously, but that's twofold because they know what you do. It will be interesting rematch against them. They did play a few other games since we played and have changed a few things so we had to study that, but I think it works to our advantage."
Defensively against MSU, the Badgers have to stop the play and rid it of its potential success. Michigan State's winning 44-yard Hail Mary pass to the touchdown has been imprinted in the minds of Badger fans and players. Lessons have been learned and film has allowed UW to see what they have to work on to make it to the Rose Bowl.
"They key always defensively is to stop the run and we have to be able to control the pass and not allow the big plays," Huxtable said. "We have to tackle well. Tackling is the most important defensive fundamental. We talked and we didn't tackle very well the first time we played them. We didn't play real good first down defense against them. We have to start the series by playing a great first down and when we have an opportunity on third down to get off the field we have to make the play.
"I think us tackling well would be a real key to the game. I just know that when we line up on Saturday, it's going to be two good football teams going against each other and its going to be a tremendous matchup, and I'm looking forward to seeing both teams play."