LOS ANGELES -- To have any chance of stopping Oregon's high-scoring offense in the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin is going to need a strong game from linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland. One thing's for sure: Both guys will surely savor the opportunity.
Borland and Taylor are arguably the co-MVPs of a mostly anonymous Badgers defense. They owe their standout 2011 seasons at least in part to some painful lessons they learned.
After being named the Big Ten freshman of the year in 2009, Borland missed all of last season, including the Rose Bowl appearance, with a shoulder injury. Taylor saw a promising redshirt freshman year end prematurely in 2009 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament that forced him to miss the Champs Sports Bowl.
Through their shared injury experience, the two formed a bond. Each helped motivate the other to recover.
"I can attest to the fact that being next to Mike for the last few years, seeing what he's had to go through, has helped me coming back from injuries," Borland told reporters. "I think he could say the same thing. It's brought us closer. We've been looking forward to playing together for a while, and this year it was able to happen."
They've both seen each other in weaker moments.
During the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl trip, Taylor was on crutches in his Orlando, Fla., hotel room and had to ask teammates to pick up some food for him.
"That hotel, it seemed like a mile, it was so long," Taylor said at Thursday's media session. "Eventually I lost the crutches and just put a brace on, but it was still quite a trek limping that far.
"When I got hurt, Chris came in and had a great season. It really made me happy to see that and obviously I was like, 'Well, what if I was healthy?' But you've got to stay positive."
Last year, Borland underwent his shoulder surgery on Dec. 23, then flew with the team to Los Angeles. Despite all the hoopla of the event, he was mostly miserable.
"Yeah, Merry Christmas, and my birthday's right after," he said. "So happy birthday. Happy New Year. I don't want to be too pitiful, because it was a great experience to come out here. I tried my best to respect where I was.
"But it was hard. It was hard to be out and not even do anything. I couldn't walk around a lot. Couldn't go to Disneyland and stuff. And then the game, most obviously."
It's safe to say that both linebackers have made up for lost time. Taylor was one of the most improved players in the Big Ten, recording 137 tackles after making only 58 last season. Borland, who switched to middle linebacker this season, added 131 stops. They are the only teammates in the Big Ten to have averaged more than 10 tackles per game this year.
Maybe neither will wow you with his size or speed, but they are both excellent tacklers who play with ferocity. Oregon offensive lineman Carson York jokingly referred to Borland as the "human incarnation of a Badger."
"Those guys are outstanding," Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. "I mean they immediately jump out on film and are relentless and incredibly good at shedding blocks. Slipping blocks. Avoiding blocks of offensive linemen, fullbacks.
"We know that we definitely have our hands full with those guys. And you're not going to trick them."
Taylor and Borland will have to excel against the Ducks' fast-paced offense. As middle linebacker, Borland has to signal in defensive calls as quickly as possible. Wisconsin can't afford many missed tackles against a team with such explosive speed, and its defense usually funnels plays to its top two linebackers.
Luckily for the Badgers, the two trust and communicate with each other innately, a relationship forged by some more painful times. Those memories have fueled them to this point.
"Being hurt and missing time makes you grow more mature," Borland said. "I think sometimes guys don't really appreciate what they have. And to have it taken away from you really makes you respect the game and a trip like this and a successful year."