University of Wisconsin inside linebacker Chris Borland will do anything in his power not to miss a game during his senior season.
Especially this week, with a chance to play the physical brand of football he loves against Iowa.
After a steady diet of mostly spread offenses, Borland and the UW defense finally get a chance to measure themselves against a power-running offense that many fans still identify with the Big Ten Conference — as outdated as that may be.
Senior outside linebacker Ethan Armstrong was asked on Monday if any of the team’s first seven opponents compared to what the Badgers will see on Saturday in Iowa City, Iowa.
“Other than the team we play every day in practice?” Armstrong said of UW’s offense. “Not really.
“There are so many spread teams and such an emphasis on the running quarterbacks, it’s going to be kind of refreshing to play against two tight ends and two running backs.”
Had the Badgers (5-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) played last week, when they had their second bye of the month, Borland would have missed the game. He suffered a right hamstring injury late in the first quarter against Illinois two weeks ago.
“He would not have played on Saturday, so (the bye) came at a great time for Chris, because I know how much it means to him and how much it means
for us to have him on the field,” UW coach Gary Andersen said.
Andersen said he will be cautious with how much Borland practices this week. But Borland expressed no doubts about being ready for the Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-2), saying the leg is feeling much better.
“It’s an injury that just takes a little bit of time, there’s not a whole lot you can do for it,” said Borland, who went through a similar injury last season. “But we’ve done everything we can. I expect to play, I think I’ve had enough time.”
Linebackers such as Borland and Armstrong come to the Big Ten to play in games like this one. In fact, Borland said the entire defense prefers physical matchups like Iowa.
“I think we’re built for it,” Borland said. “It’s kind of an old-school, physical Big Ten game. … There’s no secrets, no deception, it’s pretty much line up and play. I look forward to that.”
Some things have changed since these two schools last played each other in 2010. The Hawkeyes ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing in each of the past two years, but this year they are sixth at 188.9 yards per game.
Iowa features two bruising backs in juniors Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock. Weisman, a 236-pound converted fullback, is fourth in the Big Ten in rushing at 91.5 yards per game, while averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
“They’re not afraid of contact,” Armstrong said. “They’ll run through you and over you, all sorts of different ways. ... They’re very content with getting 3, 4, 5 yards at a time.”
Weisman and Bullock also run behind one of the best offensive lines in the conference.
“I think these are the two best offensive lines in the Big Ten, and we get to see it every day (in practice),” Borland said. “We run a lot of the same personnel groupings and even some of the same plays. It’s really valuable to go against our offense.”
During the bye last week, Armstrong volunteered to spend extra time preparing to play Borland’s position, if needed. Against Arizona State earlier this season, Armstrong started at the other inside spot.
It’s but another example of Armstrong’s value, having played nearly every linebacker position imaginable.
“I’ve kind of done it all, and that’s kind of been a niche I’ve been able to fill since I’ve been here,” Armstrong said. “If they need it, I’m ready to do it again.”
When asked if his current outside position in the 3-4 is his best spot, or where he is needed the most, Armstrong said, “I think my best position is wherever the team needs me the most. Wherever that is, I’m happy to be.”
In many ways, Armstrong has been a perfect complement this season to Borland, filling the void left by the departure of Mike Taylor. Over the previous two seasons, Taylor and Borland formed a dynamic 1-2 punch.
“Both smart players, both a little crazy, but I’ve loved playing next to those guys, kind of the consummate teammates,” Borland said. “They bring energy and make plays, which is ultimately what you want.”