Oct. 14, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Some three hours before Saturday’s kickoff, ABC college football analyst Chris Spielman was putting the finishing touches on his preparation for the Northwestern-Wisconsin game from Camp Randall Stadium. Like many, Spielman was wondering about what he was going to see out of the Badgers, who had not played since their Sept. 28 loss at Ohio State. Did he think they were a good team?
“I don’t know yet,’’ said Spielman, who celebrated his 48th birthday in Madison on Friday. “There are areas of vulnerability. Having (Jacob) Pedersen back is a big plus because it takes some pressure off Jared Abbrederis. They are a little suspect to get pressure (on opposing quarterbacks). If you have to blitz, and you can’t get it done with athletes, that’s a problem; and the back end, frankly, is a problem.’’
Circling back to the original question on whether he felt the Badgers were a good team based on what he had seen of them thus far, he said, “I think they’re good. Let’s put it this way, potentially they could be very good. Like all teams, they have question marks still. I think they’ll be tested today.’’
• • • •
Spielman was far more certain that Wisconsin had a winner in head coach Gary Andersen. The irony is that they crossed paths before as opponents on the football field. In 1986, Andersen was a 6-foot-4, 265-pound center for Utah and Spielman was a 6-foot, 247-pound middle linebacker for Ohio State. The Utes traveled to Columbus and got crushed, 64-6. “I was quick to remind him of that,’’ Spielman said.
Andersen and Spielman got a chuckle out of that flashback during Thursday’s practice. Asked to elaborate on what impressed him the most about Andersen -- the first-year UW coach, not the former center -- Spielman said, “I love him. He’s real, he’s genuine, I could tell that right away. I’ve been friends with Urban (Meyer) for years and Urban speaks highly of him and I trust Urban’s judgment.’’
Andersen’s strongest selling point, Spielman said, was the character that he showed under stress. “All I needed to know about Coach Andersen was how he handled the Arizona State debacle, he didn’t freak out,’’ he said, adding that he kept his poise even though “inside you knew he was freaking out’’ after a Pac-12 officiating crew mishandled the final seconds of a 32-30 loss to the Sun Devils.
|“I have no doubt he can have success because he does what all linebackers need to do — he produces and makes plays,” Spielman said of Borland’s NFL prospects
“In watching practice, I can tell coaches that know what’s going on, that are in charge,’’ said Spielman, an All-America linebacker at Ohio State and a 2010 inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame. “I can see how the players respond to them. Now, I’m a friend of Bret Bielema, too. I thought Bret did a good job when he was here. It might be two different styles, but two very effective styles.’’
During Thursday’s practice, Spielman got into a conversation with some pro scouts about Chris Borland’s viability as an NFL linebacker. “We were all in agreement,’’ said Spielman, who played 10 seasons with the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills, “the best way to describe him (Borland) was Zach Thomas. Many remember how instinctive Zach was as a player. I think Chris is more athletic.’’
The 5-11, 242-pound Thomas played 13 years; 12 with the Miami Dolphins, who took him out of Texas Tech in the fifth round of the 1996 draft. Thomas went to eight Pro Bowls. The 5-11, 246-pound Borland has also been compared to London Fletcher (5-10, 248), a 16-year veteran with the Washington Redskins; and the late Sam Mills (5-9, 232) who played 12 years with the Saints and Panthers.
“I have no doubt he can have success (in the NFL) because he does what all linebackers need to do -- he produces and makes plays,’’ Spielman said of Borland. “We see a lot of linebackers who have all the physical intangibles but they’re not making a lot of plays. I do think Chris has to shore up his tackling a tad. Sometimes he doesn’t wrap up. In the NFL, those guys will put you on their highlight film.
“But he’s got instincts; he’s got leverage, God-given leverage; and he can run and make plays. Film doesn’t lie. There are guys his size and even smaller (playing on Sundays). I think of the great Sam Mills. I wasn’t the biggest guy, I don’t know that I was a great player, but I was able to produce. As long as you’re making plays and you can hold your own, you can play. The bottom line is production.
“Chris will test well enough in athletic skills; the only thing that hurts him is height. But I think that’s a benefit to a linebacker, to be honest. You can’t find them, like a small running back, like a Barry Sanders. Back in the day, size was a big deal for NFL teams. But when you had guys like Zach, London, Sam, Mike Singletary; and a host of others who were able to produce, that’s not such a big deal.’’
Over the years, the game has evolved to a point where there’s more of an emphasis on passing. Inside linebackers consequently have been devalued compared to other position groups, Spielman noted. “But there’s no doubt that Chris is going to get his shot,’’ he went on, “and there’s no doubt that if he stays healthy, he’s going to have a long successful career in the NFL, in my opinion.’’
Spielman, whose brother Rick is the Minnesota Vikings general manager, is also sold on Abbrederis making the jump. There’s far more to recommend than just being a good route-runner, too.
“He can run, everybody knows that he can run,’’ Spielman said. “I don’t know if he’s quite 6-2, but he’s big enough and the thing that he does is that he catches the ball; he doesn’t drop the ball.’’
Borland and linebacker Ethan Armstrong taped a segment with Spielman on how to force a fumble that aired on Saturday’s telecast. “I really look up to him (Spielman). He’s a great example for any person, especially for any linebacker,’’ said Borland, who has forced 13 fumbles, one shy of the NCAA record. “He’s just a down-to-earth guy who knows everything there is to know about the game.’’
• • • •
Thirty minutes after Wisconsin dismantled Northwestern, 35-6, on the strength of 527 yards of total offense and a tenacious pass rush that resulted in seven quarterback sacks, Spielman nodded his approval over what he had just witnessed. Like many, he found out how good the Badgers could be.
“Pressure,’’ said Spielman, summarizing the defensive game plan.
In the UW locker room, Borland responded essentially the same way.
| Tickets are still available for the Badgers' final three home games:
• BYU - Tickets
Saturday, Nov. 9
• Indiana - Tickets
Saturday, Nov. 23
• Penn State - Tickets
Saturday, Nov. 30
“He’s more of a pro-style, dropback passer,’’ Borland said of Northwestern QB Trevor Simian, “and we were able to get after him when (Kain) Colter went out of the game (with an ankle injury).’’
Seven different players accounted for the seven sacks.
“That bodes well for us in the future; I know our defensive line was having some fun,’’ said Borland, who had a team-high 10 tackles and one of the sacks. “Things were simplified a little bit and we also had an extra week to prepare. That worked to our advantage and we were able to play more aggressively. We were able to get a turnover early and that really helped our momentum.’’
Freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton came up with an interception on Northwestern’s first offensive possession of the game. After the Badgers gave the ball right back on a turnover, the Wildcats took advantage of the short field and drove to a first-and-goal on the UW 10. But the defense stiffened and, on third-and-goal from the 4, Colter was sacked for a 6-yard loss by none other than Borland.
The Wildcats were forced to settle for a field goal. It was their only trip into the red zone.
“Third down was great for us today,’’ said Borland, recognizing that the Wildcats had managed to convert on only 2 of 17 opportunities. “That’s winning (football), that’s getting off the field. That has kind of been a place where we wanted to improve. They like to stay ahead of the chains. They want to gain four, four and three yards. We were able to win on first down and ultimately on third down.’’
The Badgers must now find a way to win a road night game. They will play their third of the season Saturday night at Illinois. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase ranks second in the Big Ten and 17th nationally in passing efficiency; two slots below Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and two slots above Stanford’s Kevin Hogan. That’s pretty good company for Scheelhaase, who’s averaging 260 passing yards per game.
“They present a lot of similar challenges (to Northwestern),’’ Borland said.
The operative word this week may be similar to last week.