MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin football fans can’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet regarding the status of Badgers linebacker Chris Borland. But the good news is Borland practiced Thursday for the first time all week in preparation for the team’s Saturday game at Iowa.
Borland had been held out of practice after straining his right hamstring on punt coverage during the first quarter of Wisconsin’s Oct. 19 game against Illinois. The Badgers then had a bye week, and UW coach Gary Andersen said Borland would not have been able to play if Wisconsin had a game.
“He went most of the practice,” Andersen said following Thursday’s session. “Tells me he feels good. I don’t know when Chris has ever told me he doesn’t feel good. But he looked good today.”
Few would argue Borland isn’t the most important player on the Badgers’ defense, so his presence on the field will be especially vital against the Hawkeyes. Borland leads Wisconsin in total tackles with 57. No other player on the team has more than 34 tackles.
Andersen still said Borland’s status would be a game-time decision. Wisconsin and Iowa play at 11 a.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
“It’s really going to depend on Chris and the trainers,” Andersen said. “The trainers have done a tremendous job of getting him to this point. Chris knows how to take care of his body. Like I said early in the week, I’m very optimistic and I expect him to play.”
Borland’s replacement last week, Marcus Trotter, finished with a team-best nine tackles against Illinois. Andersen said Trotter and the rest of the linebackers — specifically Conor O’Neill, Derek Landisch and Ethan Armstrong — would be ready to step in to fill the void if Borland can’t play.
“It’s great to have a special player out there,” Andersen said. “But Trotter is ready to go and O’Neil and Landisch and Ethan has come in and played inside. I think we’ll be fine either way. These kids have high expectations of themselves personally to go out and produce on game day.
“We all like to have Chris. I’d like to have Chris play for Chris. It’s important for him. He’s got a lot of things to play for and he’s excited about those opportunities and he needs to be on the field to reach a lot of his goals. It’s important for him to be out there personally and that means a lot to me.”
Hemer’s importance: Badgers starting defensive end Ethan Hemer has recorded just two total tackles in seven games this season. But Andersen said his statistics were not indicative of his value to the team.
“It’s a very difficult position,” Andersen said. “He’s a good player. People know they’ve got to stay on the combination blocks and the double teams on him for a long period of time. To me, in its own way it’s a credit to Ethan and the way people have to be able to deal with him because he moves the line of scrimmage. He does his job at the point of attack. Those combination blocks stay on him for a long time and allow the linebackers to roam free.”
Hemer’s statistics have dropped considerably during his senior season. A year ago, he recorded 24 tackles and has never had a season in which he did not record at least 21 tackles. But Wisconsin switched to a 3-4 defensive scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, which has changed the way Hemer is used, funneling the ball toward other tacklers.
Does Hemer get frustrated?
“I think he does,” Andersen said. “Everybody does, right? If you’re running the ball, you want yards. You want touchdowns. You want catches as a wide receiver. As a defensive player, you want to get tackles. I’m sure it’s difficult for him at times to understand that why are these guys staying on me so long? But again it’s a lot out of respect from the offensive line coaches and the offensive lines that we face.”
Locker room talk: Andersen was asked for his thoughts on Iowa’s use of pink visiting locker rooms, which has drawn controversy over the years.
“I’ve been in locker rooms where they try to do a lot of different things,” Andersen said. “I hear it’s a very nice locker room. That’s what we really care about. Some locker rooms are not so nice. From my understanding, it’s a nice locker room. It’s got a lot of space for us.
“All the other stuff that comes with that, I don’t quite understand it. It doesn’t bother me. We’re all right. We played in pink gloves last week and we did OK with those on, so I think we’ll be fine.”
In April, two attorneys told attendees at the Iowa Governors Conference on LGBTQ Youth that schools that paint locker rooms pink as a way to humiliate opponents send a sexist message and one that is setting the school up for a lawsuit.
In August, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said he would not order Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz to repaint the pink locker room, saying the governor should not micromanage the football program.
Iowa first experimented with pink locker rooms during the 1980s under former football coach Hayden Fry. The Hawkeyes later re-did the pink locker rooms in 2005.
“I’ve heard the pink locker room is overrated,” Borland said this week. “I’m excited to see that. I heard it’s more of a mauve. I thought it would be hot pink. I’m kind of disappointed.”