Chris Borland and his fellow Wisconsin defenders have been overshadowed so far this season, as most of the attention has been on the Badgers' transitioning offense.
Wisconsin's offensive production has dipped and spiked, while the defense once again has been steady. The Badgers rank in the top 30 nationally in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense, and Borland, a fourth-year junior, not surprisingly is leading the way.
A first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011 who won the league's Freshman of the Year honor in 2009, the 5-foot-11, 242-pound Borland once again is among the Big Ten's top defensive playmakers. He leads Wisconsin in sacks (4), forced fumbles (2) and fumbles recovered (2) and trails only fellow 'backer Mike Taylor in tackles (60) and tackles for loss (7.5). Although he has yet to record an interception this season -- he had two last year -- he ranks second on the team in pass breakups with five. Wisconsin has rebounded from a shaky start to record back-to-back Big Ten wins.
ESPN.com caught up with Borland before Wisconsin's home showdown with Minnesota.
What's the team's mood like now versus a month ago, when things weren't going so well?
Chris Borland: I think guys are a little more comfortable. We've strung together some wins. Things around the locker room are a little different than when we struggled early on.
Being on the defense, what was it like to see the offense go through the transition it did earlier this year?
CB: We didn't feel sorry for them or anything, and I don't think they felt sorry for themselves. We knew it'd be a transition with all the new coaches and some new players stepping up in new roles. We knew it was a matter of time [before they turned it around]. Too many good players, too many good coaches, and obviously, it's taken on that identity these last two games.
What have been the main points of emphasis for the defense this season, and where are you in terms of reaching them?
CB: We always start with stopping the run, and we've been doing a pretty good job of that this season. We've let up some long run plays that have hurt the stat book, but for the most part, we've stopped the run well. And then creating takeways, that was slow coming early on this season, but over the last few games those have started to pick up, too, so I think we're on track. We have a lot of potential, but we aren't close to being where we could be by the end of the season.
How would you evaluate yourself here through the first half of the season?
CB: I've done a decent job so far, been struggling with a few things injury-wise, but I've played through that pretty well and been able to make some plays. It was just my knee, but I'm getting healthy again, so hopefully I can make some jumps the rest of the season. I feel pretty good. For seven games in, I'm pretty healthy. I was kind of frustrated with how the beginning of the season went, but I'm starting to feel pretty good.
You've played alongside Mike [Taylor] for a long time. What has that been like, playing linebacker together all these years?
CB: The familiarity is off the charts. We're both really comfortable with one another out there, and we both see things pretty well. We've been under the same tutelage for the last three years, so we communicate well and work well off one another. It's great to play next to him. He's a really instinctual and intelligent player, and it helps me a lot.
Are you two competitive?
CB: Yeah, we are. I think Mike had me by seven tackles last year, and he's got a lead on me this season [Taylor has 72 stops]. We know exactly where we stand with one another, so it's a friendly competitiveness.
Do you put any extra emphasis on the forced fumbles or stats where you've shined in your career?
CB: That's my contention. I always tell him, whenever he starts to brag about tackles, is our defense funnels some tackles to the [weak-side] linebacker, so he should have more than me. I ask him where his TFLs are at or where his sacks are at, just some good ribbing going back and forth.
You've played multiple linebacker positions at Wisconsin. Where are you most comfortable?
CB: I've felt comfortable doing it all. Each one's different, and it took some time to adjust to [middle linebacker], but I feel like I could fill all three of the linebacker spots comfortably. I love coming off the edge, too.
You often get described as a throwback. Do any older fans come up to you and compare you to players 40 or 50 years ago?
CB: I haven't gotten any people saying I remind them of anybody. I do get the old guy who puts his hand on your shoulder and says something nice. You always like to see that from someone who's been around the game for a while.
Any chance we see any more kicking exhibitions [Borland, who comes from a soccer family, made three extra points as a freshman at Hawaii]?
CB: Coach B [Bret Bielema] promised I would if I scored a touchdown, but I haven't been able to get in the end zone during my career. The knee's better, so I'll be champing at the bit if that ever happens.
You're going to hold him to that promise, right?
CB: [Laughs] Well, I'll see where we are in the game. I don't want to take away from our kickers.
You have Minnesota this week. How important is it to keep the axe another year?
CB: It's huge. We have a little history lesson of the game every Tuesday of game week. I think we've had the axe for eight straight years now. Most importantly, it represents a win, so we'll go out there to keep the axe, keep it in our locker room for another year.
As a defense, where are you looking to get better down the stretch as some of the competition gets a little tougher?
CB: We've given up some big plays that are really going to hurt us if we do it against better teams. We've got to limit big plays against explosive players and teams, and we're going to be seeing that really in all five of our games remaining. There's guys who show up on film that are dangerous. So we've got to cut down on big plays. That goes a long way to helping us be a great defense.
It's not your last year, but are you getting a sense of urgency from guys like Mike or Montee [Ball] as their college careers wind down?
CB: To be honest, those guys have always had the same sense of urgency. We care about our senior class as a team, so guys are always working their hardest and putting everything on the line during games. I don't really see a change. We'll just continue what we've been doing the last few years.
It wasn't the start to the season that you wanted, but what would it mean to get back to the Big Ten title game with another shot at the Rose Bowl?
CB: That's our goal. It's not really how you start, it's how you finish. We've had a great opportunity. I think we control our own destiny, so if we just continue to work and get better like we have throughout the season, we'll be where we want to be at the end.