MADISON — Chris Borland and Mike Taylor each say they don't much care that most college football fans probably have no idea who they are. The attention is not important, they concur, even if both players happen to be two of the best linebackers in the entire country, standing just a few feet apart on the same team.
At the University of Wisconsin, flash never has been a sticking point at any position, let alone a bruising one such as linebacker. Borland and Taylor's role in the Badgers' defense is to make tackles, not to pick up popularity points on national television.
"We just like playing the game and winning," Borland said. "Those two things have happened all year. We haven't missed a snap and we've won 11 games, so it's all sunny on our side."
Even if fans aren't yet aware of the Badgers' two top tacklers, you'd better believe opposing offenses have already taken notice. Because it hasn't been particularly sunny for ball carriers sitting squarely in the duo's crosshairs on game day.
In 13 games, Taylor has amassed 137 total tackles (10.54 per game), while Borland has 131 tackles (10.08 per contest). Both rank in the top 20 nationally, and their combined total tackles of 268 are more than any other pair of players on the same team in the country.
"Both of them are incredible athletes, and they're both very talented at their position," Badgers offensive lineman Travis Frederick said. "We get a chance to go against them almost every day, and a chance to do that makes us better. When you get to go against somebody that you say, ‘Wow, those guys are making me better,' that means they're obviously two of the better people in the conference."
When Wisconsin (11-2) plays Oregon (11-2) on Jan. 2 in the Rose Bowl, the Ducks' high-powered offense should have its hands full at the line of scrimmage identifying both players.
What makes Borland and Taylor special is their exceptional ability to master the minute details that don't show up on highlight reels: Running to the ball, no matter how far away they are from the play. Never stopping until the whistle blows. Not taking plays off.
That continual motor helps make up for their deficiencies, including a lack of size. Taylor, a redshirt junior from Ashwaubenon, Wis., is generously listed at 6-foot-2. Borland, a sophomore from Kettering, Ohio, stands just 5-11.
"On any play, you never know if your teammate will miss a tackle or a ball gets tipped in the air and there's a fumble," Taylor said. "As long as you're running hard and going after a ball, good things will happen."
How, exactly, have two unassuming Midwestern guys emerged as two of the best tacklers seemingly from nowhere?
Being healthy certainly helps.
Borland missed most of last season after he broke a bone in his left shoulder in the opening game against UNLV. He attempted to play through the pain two weeks later against Arizona State but lasted less than a quarter. He did not play the remainder of the season, including Wisconsin's 21-19 loss against TCU in the Rose Bowl.
"It was tough," Borland said. "I could see it coming last year when our team was playing so well and I knew I was out for the year. I prepared for it. It's not like I got hurt in bowl prep. It was still difficult. I would have loved to help the team try to win that game, but we get to do it this year."
In the offseason, Borland was asked to switch positions from outside linebacker to inside linebacker to take over relaying calls to the defense, and the move has paid off. He tallied double-digit tackles in six games and twice was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.
"He grew so much during the course of the year," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. "He'd never played inside linebacker. I know it was a common discussion in those first three, four, five games, ‘Why isn't Borland outside?' You really see the emergence of a middle linebacker that is exceptional, and the great thing is he has two more years hopefully."
Taylor, the Badgers' outside linebacker, also endured his share of setbacks. In 2009, he started the first seven games before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and missing the rest of the season. Taylor also missed the first game of last season after the knee flared up and required a scope. The soreness in his knee forced him to wear a bulky brace, and Taylor said the injury plagued him throughout the year.
With the knee fully healed this season, Taylor has dominated at times. In a game against Ohio State, Taylor recorded 22 tackles — the most for a Wisconsin player since 1998. Like Borland, he too has been named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week twice this season.
"Just being healthier gives me more confidence," Taylor said. "I believe in myself and trust my teammates."
The confidence and trust Taylor speaks of clearly has rubbed off on teammates. With Borland and Taylor in charge, Wisconsin ranks sixth in the country in scoring defense, allowing just 17 points per game.
That's not a number likely to garner much attention from fans, but Borland and Taylor will happily trade personal fame for team success.
"Our play," Borland said, "speaks for itself."
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