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MADISON – Since joining the coaching ranks in 1994, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has always had a hand in coaching the linebackers. Solely a linebackers coach at Iowa, Bielema continued to coach the position at Kansas State and Wisconsin while also having the defensive coordinator label.
After watching the game film from Saturday's 31-14 win over Illinois, Bielema lauded the play of his veteran group of linebackers and the way the trio helped stonewall the Illini's offensive attack.
Senior Mike Taylor registered 12 tackles, the 11th time in his last 16 games he finished with at least that many. Junior Chris Borland finished with 10 tackles (his 11th double-digit tackle game of his career) and Ethan Armstrong matched his career high with 10 stops.
As a result, Wisconsin's defense allowed Illinois inside the Wisconsin 40-yard line only once in the second half.
"They are very, very fast, but they are very, very intelligent," said Bielema during his Monday news conference. "They've all had three linebacker coaches in three years (Dave Doeren to 2010, Dave Huxtable in 2011 and Andy Buh in 2012). The way they've adapted to that, and every one of those coaches within the first probably three or four practices of being around those kids, they talk about their football IQ. And then they're just very athletic."
While Borland and Taylor get most of the publicity from an outsider's perspective, Wisconsin acknowledged Armstrong – the team's strongside linebacker - with the team's defensive most valuable player award from Saturday's game.
"He's been consistent," said Bielema of Armstrong. "(He) was all over the place on Saturday, whether it's wide lateral plays, passing game, he just -- and then really they all kind of had that creative niche to make a play on the field that you never really practiced. That's just those football instincts taking over."
While the linebackers received the majority of the tackles against the Illini (accounting for 32 of UW's 74 tackles), Bielema credited Wisconsin's strengthened defensive line for opening up the tackling lanes. With defensive ends Brendan Kelly and Pat Muldoon returning to the lineup, the defensive line registered the team's four sacks.
"Linebacker play all starts with what's happening in front of them," said Bielema. "Those guys occupy blockers. For the most part, our defensive line stays in appropriate gaps and plays the techniques that the linebackers are expecting them to play. So the ball gets funneled the way the linebackers can scrape and make plays. It's just one of those things where, if everything's working right together, the linebackers should make plays.
"It's the way we funnel the football. It's the way we can make things happen for us defensively here for sure."
Depth Chart Tweaks
Returning from a broken arm to make four tackles in a 31-14 victory over Illinois on Saturday, senior Shelton Johnson is listed as the No. 1 strong safety. Redshirt freshman Michael Caputo - who started the first two series against Illinois – and redshirt sophomore Michael Trotter – who started the three prior games -are listed as co-backups.
The secondary could continue to get stronger if Peniel Jean is cleared. Suffering a broken foot in camp, Jean is listed as a co-backup cornerback along with Devin Gaulden, behind starter Marcus Cromartie.
"(Shelton) has good gamesmanship to him," said Bielema. "Really didn't practice at all last week until a little bit on Thursday, and that's why we didn't start him. He obviously saw a need to jump in there.
"And P.J., probably before the season started, would have been our starting nickel. Darius Hillary has great reps there. Darius hasn't done anything to be replaced, but he gives us added depth. So we're dancing at the corner if anything were to happen to Devin and Marcus through a couple games there."
After a knee injury held him out of Saturday's game, sophomore Kyle Costigan is again listed as the starting right guard ahead of junior Zac Matthias, who started against the Illini. Costigan is expected to be cleared for Tuesday's practice.
"His arrow is straight up," said Bielema. "He's aggressive, smart, nobody cares more than him. He's a very physical football player. He really enjoys the physical aspect of playing football, whether it's push a guy down, knock him down, give him a little extra after the play's gone by. He just really enjoys it."
After playing for the first time since 2009, running a specific package Wisconsin's offense had worked on during its third series against Illinois, senior Curt Phillips is listed as the co-backup quarterback with Danny O'Brien.
Phillips had not played since the 2009 regular-season finale because of three injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
"Curt has a lot of respect, not only with the players, but with the coaches," said Bielema. "I think he's a guy that battled through a lot of - just for him to get on the field after three years says a lot about who he is and what he is. I realize the outside world, when he popped in there, that people thought it was a reaction to everything. It was just finally a chance to get him out there. There was probably nobody more excited than Curt himself, but the players around him.
"It was something we probably repped at least five weeks in a row and looked really good. Probably looked his best on Wednesday when we were going our good offense versus our good defense. Curt hit a couple of really big plays. Definitely a package we feel strongly about. Obviously, didn't work out well in those plays on Saturday, but it was the first time Curt had seen live action in three years.
"At that point, Illinois was pretty ramped up and going at it pretty aggressively. You saw what Michigan was able to do against Purdue in the spread look. So it's something that we definitely explore and hopefully continue to build."
Bielema acknowledged Monday that junior guard Dallas Lewallen (knee) still hasn't been cleared to practice or play.
After accounting for over 100 yards of total offense in Wisconsin's 31-14 win over Illinois Saturday, junior tailback James White was awarded the offense's MVP award.
"James is the guy we've counted on him as being," said Bielema. "He was the first guy last year, when Montee was on his roll, came in and volunteered for special teams. I'm happy because he kind of had the spark there (on the screen play) that changed the momentum in the first half. That was a huge play."
The special teams MVP went to Kyle French, who kicked the go-ahead 46-yard field goal in the third quarter in tough kicking conditions Saturday.
"I thought that play where he hit the 46-yard field goal on the right hash at that point in the game was a critical, critical play, and he did an exceptional job there," said Bielema. "(He) has been hitting the ball really well during practice the last couple of weeks, especially from that same distance, that same spot."
Extra Points: Wisconsin will play border rival Minnesota at 11 a.m. on Oct.20 on ESPNU … With a win Saturday, Bielema can tie College Football Hall of Famer Phil King (1896-1902, 1905) for second on the Badgers' all-time wins list at 65 … Bielema said the starting punt returner would be determined later in the week. Jared Abbrederis returned to the role after Kenzel Doe, who assumed the starting role the previous four weeks, struggled in the conditions.