MADISON, Wis. — The way Bret Bielema sees it, when the defensive line occupies blockers and funnels the football toward the middle, linebackers should make tackles.
But what Bielema, Wisconsin’s seventh-year head coach, witnessed on Saturday was something special.
“I didn’t know of any other time during my career where all three linebackers had charted 10 tackles each,” Bielema said Monday at his weekly press conference. “I can’t remember watching a game or seeing anything like that.”
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During Wisconsin’s 31-14 victory against Illinois, the linebacker trio of Mike Taylor, Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong accounted for 32 total tackles. Taylor tallied 12, while Borland and Armstrong finished with 10 apiece.
Bielema, who coached linebackers as an assistant at Iowa, Kansas State and Wisconsin, offered high praise for his star trio. All three have endured three different linebacker coaches in the past three seasons: Dave Doeren (2010), Dave Huxtable (2011) and Andy Buh (2012).
“They are very fast, but they are very intelligent,” Bielema said. “They’ve all had three linebacker coaches in three years. Every one of those coaches within the first three or four practices of being around those kids, they talk about their football IQ. And then they’re just very athletic. …
“They all have that creative niche to be able to make a play on the field that you never really practiced. And that’s just those football instincts taking over.”
Taylor’s 12 tackles represented the 11th time in his last 16 games that he finished with at least 12 stops. Borland, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week two weeks ago, recorded his 11th double-digit tackle game. And Armstrong tied a career high he set last month against Oregon State.
“I don’t think any of us kind of noticed who was making plays,” Armstrong said after Saturday’s game. “It was just that everyone was out there and making plays. It was a lot of fun. We’re all able to feed off each other. Once one starts to make a play, then the next guy does and it kind of snowballs.”
Added Borland: “I don’t know if that’s ever happened while I’ve been here. Guys are making plays.”
Taylor ranks eighth in the country in tackles per game at 11.17. Borland is tied for 49th at 8.83. Last season, Taylor ranked 13th in the country in tackles per game (10.71) and Borland 19th (10.21).
Armstrong, who averages 6.83 tackles per game, earned defensive team MVP honors for his performance against Illinois.
“The reason we did it is because he’s been consistent,” Bielema said. “He probably doesn’t get the headlines as much as Mike and Chris. Army was all over the place on Saturday.”
More on Phillips: Much was made on Saturday about Bielema’s decision to insert redshirt senior Curt Phillips into the game at quarterback. Bielema said the plan all along was to play Phillips on the third series from scrimmage. And judging from Bielema’s comments Monday, we could see more of him in the future.
Phillips was part of a spread package, although it didn’t work against Illinois. His lone completion was negated because of a penalty, he lost two yards on a run, and the Badgers went three-and-out. But Bielema noted that Wisconsin’s opponent this week, Purdue, struggled last week against Michigan’s spread offense looks.
“Curt has a lot of respect not only with the players but with the coaches,” Bielema said. “He’s a guy that’s battled through a lot. 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, people thought it was a reaction to anything. It was just finally a chance to get him out there.”
Phillips made his first appearance in a game since playing against Purdue on Oct. 31, 2009.
Bielema said Wisconsin had practiced the Phillips package for the past five weeks, and it looked especially good against the first-team defense on Wednesday.
“Curt hit a couple really big plays,” Bielema said. “It’s definitely a package that we feel really strongly about.”
Depth chart updates: Badgers strong safety Shelton Johnson is listed as the team’s starter for this week’s game against Purdue. Johnson did not start against Illinois after missing the previous three games with a broken arm. Redshirt freshman Michael Caputo started in his place against Illinois.
Caputo and Michael Trotter are both listed as backups to Johnson.
Wisconsin also likely will benefit from the return of right guard Kyle Costigan, who is listed as the starter. Costigan suffered a knee injury against Nebraska and sat out the Illinois game. Bielema said he would be cleared for practice Tuesday.
Cornerback Daniel Jean also could play this week. He broke his foot during fall camp and has not played this season but is listed as the co-backup with Devin Gaulden behind Marcus Cromartie.
Lastly, Dallas Lewallen is listed as the team’s backup right guard, but his lingering knee problems continue to keep him out of action.
“No one is trying harder than him,” Bielema said. “No one would like to have him out there more than us and his family, but it has just not been there yet.”