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MADISON – Originally saying he would prefer to have only one bye week per season, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen has changed his tune as the Badgers take their second weekend off this month. Losing your star senior linebacker will likely make any head coach have second thoughts.
Linebacker Chris Borland left late in the first quarter of Wisconsin’s 56-32 victory at Illinois on Saturday, aggravating the same right hamstring that caused him to sit out the final two regular season games last season.
Wisconsin lost those two games, both in overtime, to Ohio State and at Penn State before Borland returned for the Big Ten championship game, a 70-31 victory over Nebraska.
While Andersen isn’t sure if Borland is still going to be the team’s long-range field goal kicker, he’s confident that Borland will return when Wisconsin – up three spots to No.22 in the AP poll – travels to Iowa November 2 in the first meeting between the two schools since 2010.
“I talked to him last night (but) didn't see him today,” Andersen said. “Texted him actually last night …He returns very simple with, ‘Coach, I'll be ready for Iowa.’ That's what he said. That's what I know.”
Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) trails Ohio State by a half game in the Leaders Division but the Buckeyes hold the tiebreaker based on their 31-24 win in Columbus Sept. 28. The Badgers also see themselves outside the top 25 of the initial BCS standings, meaning Wisconsin has to run the table and get some help to make it into the top 14 to qualify for a BCS selection.
If Borland is out for an extended time, the challenge becomes even greater.
With Borland in the lineup, Illinois first four drives resulted in 12 plays, minus-11 yards and a turnover. After Borland, who leads the Badgers with 57 tackle on the seasons, left the game, Illinois final three series of the half resulted in 186 total yards and 17 points on just 22 plays (8.5 yards per play).
After a season-high seven sacks limited Northwestern to 241 total yards two weeks ago, Wisconsin typically rushed only three and dropped eight into coverage, a strategy that yielded only two sacks, 319 passing yards, 391 total yards and tied for the most points Wisconsin’s sixth-ranked scoring defense (15.9 points per game) has allowed all season.
The Illini also scored three touchdowns in the red zone against a Wisconsin defense that had only allowed a combined five touchdowns through the first six games, and UW’s young secondary were beaten for pass completions of 20, 51, 39, 29 and 29 yards.
“We are young in the secondary, but that, again, it's no excuse,” said Andersen. “We need to get better.
The best pass defense in the whole world is a pass rush, and if we can continue to work on that and make it be more consistent, I think it will help in the back end. Those kids in the back end are going to get better.”
While building confidence in the secondary is important, Andersen said the week’s main goal was getting a healthy Borland on the field for Wisconsin’s second-to-last conference road game of the season.
“The next opponent we're playing, we need Chris,” said Andersen. “This is two heavyweights swinging at each other for four quarters …We picture ourselves a team that likes to get into the physical games. You don't have to watch but ten snaps on Iowa to know that they like it too, so we need to be firing on all cylinders.”