Badgers' top linebackers finally get to play together in a bowl game
LOS ANGELES - Wisconsin linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland have been waiting their entire college careers to play in a bowl game together.
The Badgers' two leading tacklers spent the last two seasons battling career-threatening injuries and the sorrow of watching their team step onto the field in a bowl game without them.
Now that both players are healthy at the same time, Borland and Taylor will finally get their chance to play the last game of the season with each other when Wisconsin faces Oregon in the Rose Bowl at 2 p.m. Monday.
As a redshirt freshman in 2009, Taylor was leading the Badgers with 46 tackles seven games into the season. Then, against Iowa, Taylor was hit from behind and tore an anterior cruciate ligament.
Taylor, a 6-2, 230 pound junior, spent the time leading up to that year's Champs Sports Bowl sitting in a Miami hotel room not doing much.
'I remember Mike sitting in his room asking guys to pick him up some food,' Borland says. 'It's not very fun to have a surgery, and it's salt in the wound to get a trip to Miami and not be able to take advantage of it.'
Sitting out Wisconsin's 20-14 win against Miami was difficult for Taylor. And losing the ability to walk put his life on and off the field into perspective.
'When you can't walk, you really appreciate your ability to play football, to run and walk and to have fun and to not deal with something like that,' Taylor says. 'I don't want to sound overly dramatic or anything ... it definitely was not fun that week, seeing your teammates play and have fun out there.'
Taylor was healthy by the 2010 season. That was when Borland went down.
Borland a 5-11, 245 pound sophomore, injured his left shoulder in the Badgers' 2010 opener against Nevada-Las Vegas. After sitting out a week, he returned and broke a bone in his shoulder against Arizona State.
Borland had surgery on the shoulder. Then, on Dec. 23, 2010, he had surgery on his right shoulder to correct another problem.
'I had surgery on the 23rd and flew out (to Los Angeles) on Christmas,' Borland says. 'Merry Christmas. And my birthday is right after, so happy birthday. Happy New Year.'
Borland and Taylor roomed together before the Badgers' 21-19 Rose Bowl loss to TCU last season. Borland was as unhappy that week as Taylor had been in Miami the year before.
'He just looked miserable coming out of shoulder surgery and being on pain medications,' Taylor says. 'It did not look fun at all.'
Borland found coming back from the injury more challenging mentally than physically.
'I was so hungry to get out there, but you can't,' Borland says. 'You have a lot of pent-up aggression. You want to play the game, but you can't. That was a challenging thing mentally.'
Borland and Taylor leaned on each other to recover from their injuries.
'We supported each other,' Borland says. 'We're two competitive guys. So to get back out there and play was our main motivation. We kind of went back and forth with each other's injuries, motivating each other and getting each other ready to play.'
As the two linebackers strengthened their bodies together, they also strengthened their friendship.
'Mike and I are really close,' Borland says. 'We're friends on and off the field. And he's a great guy to play with. He plays the game the right way. He approaches it the right way. And he's just a good teammate.'
This season, with Borland and Taylor healthy, the two have been the cornerstone of the Badgers' defense. Borland has made 131 tackles, recorded 1.5 sacks and picked off two passes. Taylor has made 137 tackles with one sack and two interceptions.
Wisconsin co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge marvels at the way Borland and Taylor were able to come back from their injuries and contribute as much as they have to the defense.
'I can't say enough about their perseverance and their abilities,' Partridge says. 'Their perseverance and character, their constant work ethic ... a lot of kids with the things they faced may or may not ever make it back. It's a big testament to their character.'
Borland also had to show resiliency through a position change. He began his career as a pass rusher on the outside in Wisconsin's 3-4 defense. When the Badgers switched to a 4-3, Borland moved to middle linebacker.
'It was difficult transition for me at first,' Borland said. 'I had to change a lot of things in my game and get used to the different angles and the tempo of your footwork when you're at 'Mike' versus (being) an outside linebacker or pass rusher. That took some time. With the help of the coaches, I was able to make the transition.'
As the defensive signal caller, Borland will have more pressure on him than anyone against Oregon's no-huddle, hurry-up offense. Taylor and Borland both will have to deal with Oregon's speed, athleticism and confusing play calls. Borland will have mere seconds to make sure that all of his teammates know what play the defense will run.
'I need to get the calls out and recognize offensive formations immediately,' Borland says. 'There's really no time to be wrong or second-guess.
'(Taylor) and I as linebackers have to tackle well, have to be gap-sound, because those backs will hit the gaps if they have a sliver of an opening. So (we need to) be in the right place at the right time and tackle. If you miss tackles, a 5-yard gain can become a 25-yard gain pretty quickly.'
Borland and Taylor would have preferred to be healthy throughout their entire careers. But they say that they made the most of things. And when they step out on the field against Oregon, both will be stronger men because of everything they have gone through.
'Being hurt and missing time makes you grow more mature,' Borland says. 'You respect things more. Sometimes guys don't really appreciate what they have. And to have it taken away from you and then have a successful year, it really makes you respect the game.'