MADISON, Wis. — In many respects, Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland can be considered the Chuck Norris of his entire college football program. That is, someone whose legend becomes so great that fact and fiction blur. At least, what is fact can occasionally seem as though it’s fiction.
Fact: Borland can hit the crossbar with a throw from 30 yards away in one take — a video that quickly made the rounds this week on the Badgers’ football Instagram account proves it. He’s also been known to throw 50 yards left-handed while warming up before games.
Fact: Borland once made three extra points in a game against Hawaii as a freshman. He also is capable of booming 40-yard field goals and recently did a standstill box jump of 51 inches. All this comes on top of the fact that he is Wisconsin’s best linebacker and has more than twice as many tackles as any player on the team.
Now comes the latest in a long line of his impressive feats: motivational speaker.
Before Wisconsin obliterated No. 19 Northwestern 35-6 on Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium with its most noteworthy defensive effort of the season, it was Borland who provided the pre-game address to his defense. And its impact created ripples.
“At the beginning of the game, I didn’t have to say anything to the kids,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “Trust me. Chris Borland said whatever he needed to say and he said it in (no) uncertain terms. Those kids listen to him. I didn’t have to say much after that. They came out ready to roll.”
That they did.
Seven different Wisconsin players each recorded a sack, doubling the Badgers’ output from their first five games of the season. It marked the first time Wisconsin tallied seven sacks in 10 years — since a 26-23 loss against Purdue on Oct. 18, 2003.
Borland set the tone by providing the first sack of the game at a critical juncture. He sacked Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter on a third-and-4 from UW’s 6-yard line during the first quarter. Northwestern was forced to settle for a field goal, and the Wildcats would get no closer to the end zone the rest of the game.
So what, exactly, did Borland say when he gathered the defensive players in the locker room before kickoff? He left the contents of his speech a mystery.
“I just got the guys pumped up,” said Borland, who finished with a team-best 10 tackles despite rolling his ankle in the first half. “I think we’ve been chomping at the bit to get back on the field, so they didn’t need to hear much. It is a football game. Guys need to get excited and go out there and play hard.”
Badgers linebacker Ethan Armstrong, who registered his sack in the second quarter, expanded.
“It was kind of just, ‘Guys, I don’t need to say anything,'” Armstrong said. “`We all know what we’ve got to do. So let’s go out there and do it.’
“He’s always kind of one of the leaders of the defense. He was kind of saying what everyone was thinking. There’s no reason why we can’t be this defense. Let’s go out there and do it. He didn’t need to say anything else.”
It wasn’t all on Borland, of course. Not on a day when the entire defense dominated in ways that haven’t been seen in years. The sacks came fast and furious. In order: Borland, Armstrong, linebacker Conor O’Neill, linebacker Vince Biegel, safety Nate Hammon, defensive end Pat Muldoon and nose guard Beau Allen.
Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) entered the day averaging just 1.4 sacks per game, which ranked tied for 96th among FBS teams.
“It’s awesome,” Andersen said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been around seven sacks from seven different kids. They’ll be very excited about that. There was a lot of moving parts to that defense today and a lot of communication. It’s good to see them get some pressure.”
What made Wisconsin’s performance especially notable was the opponent because the Wildcats were a top-25 scoring offense at 39.0 points per game. They also were held to just 241 total yards of offense — 233 below their season average.
Northwestern (4-2, 0-2) entered Saturday’s contest having scored at least 30 points in seven consecutive games — the second-longest active streak in the country. The Wildcats also had scored at least 10 points in 78 straight games, dating back to a 58-7 loss against Ohio State in 2007.
The outcome left eighth-year Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald searching for answers.
“We were as held in check offensively as maybe my last five years and so we’ll start always with us as coaches, look at what happened schematically,” he said.
“I hope it gives our guys a punch right in the face and wakes them up. It’s hard to win Big Ten football games. In my opinion, in sport, it’s the hardest thing to do and when you get punched in the face, you got to shake the cobwebs out and you got to respond.”
Both teams were coming off difficult losses to Ohio State, which has clearly established itself as the Big Ten favorite and a national championship contender. But Wisconsin had an extra seven days to recover with a bye week and used the time to prepare for Northwestern’s up-tempo spread offense, which featured a rare two-quarterback system of Colter and Trevor Siemian.
That meant defensive coordinator Dave Aranda concocted doses of pressure the Badgers hadn’t shown all season. And Northwestern’s front line was overmatched from the start.
“Coach Aranda’s got a lot of tricks in his pocket,” Wisconsin linebacker Brendan Kelly said. “He just doesn’t pull those cards out. He pulled a few cards out today, and you see a guy scot-free hitting that quarterback. That takes a toll on the quarterback. We love running as a defense. We love dialing up those blitzes. We got a few of those today and there’s plenty more in the playbook, so it’ll be good next week.”
The question moving forward is just how good. And, perhaps to a lesser degree, what Borland will do next for an encore to rally his defense.
“Hopefully today is the precedent,” Borland said. “That’s kind of where we set the bar to perform like this the rest of the year.”