Coming in at #10:
October 3, 1992: Wisconsin 20, #12 Ohio State 16. To my mind, this is the game that started it all.
In 1990 Barry Alvarez promised things would be different, but after a 1-10 season (the second in three years) things didn't get off to a great start. Five wins in 1991 were more than the previous three seasons combined, but included only two wins in conference, over fellow cellar-dwellers Minnesota and Northwestern.
In the Fall of 1992 I was a Freshman on campus. Week one featured a respectable 27-10 road loss to #2 -- and defending national (co)champion -- Washington, in the midst of U-Dub's run at the top of the Pac-10. Then two home wins over Bowling Green and Northern Illinois. We were 2-1, but had started the previous season 3-0 with wins over your typical cupcakes before a trip to Ohio State kicked off a 6-game losing streak. Here they were again, #12 Ohio State, ready to ruin our party. I remember sitting in the upper deck with my parents (it was parents' weekend) while the underdog Badgers inexplicably hung on for the win. It didn't translate to immediate success. The next week we lost at Kinnick, and with losses to the likes of Indiana and Northwestern, we finished the year at 5-6 -- again. But it was the start of something. Wisconsin hadn't beaten a ranked team since beating then #3 Ohio state in 1985, and had only beaten two ranked teams in the prior 10 years (ironically, the other one was also Ohio State, in 1984). It was a sign of things to come in the Alvarez Era.
#9: December 28, 2002, Alamo Bowl: Wisconsin 31, #14 Colorado 28 (OT)
7-6 Wisconsin limped into the Alamo Bowl, losing six of their final eight regular season games. In San Antonio they lined up against heavily favored #14 Colorado. Two second-half fumbles gifted Colorado scoring drives of 26 and 17 yards, to take a 28-21 lead. In one of the more remarkable finishes in Badger history, the Badgers were still down 7 with 2:25 to play when they took over at their own 20.
On first down, Brooks Bollinger hit Brandon Williams for 32 yards, but after a loss of 4, two incomplete passes, and a 9-yard penalty, the Badgers faced 4th and 14 at their own 48. Bollinger again went to Williams, this time for 26 yards over the middle to keep their hopes alive. Two more incompletions and on third and ten Bollinger dropped a beautiful pass in stride to Freshman Jonathon Orr . . . who dropped the sure touchdown. On their last, desperate 4th and 10, Bollinger hit Darrin Charles with a 30-yard strike down to the Colorado 1. Bollinger snuck it in from there to tie the game and send it to overtime. In the extra frame, the Badger D pushed the Buffs back, and they missed a 45-yard field goal attempt. Mike Allen then zeroed in a 37-yard kick for the Badger win.
Carrying the rushing load for the Buffs in the 4th quarter? A kid named Brian Calhoun who totalled 16 yards on 9 carries and lost a yard on his only reception.
#8: October 11, 2003: Wisconsin 17, #3 Ohio State 10.
It was an otherwise forgettable year for the 7-6 Badger squad that lost to Auburn in the Outback Bowl, to finish losing five of their last 6, but before the collapse, for one Saturday in October, Bucky rallied for another upset of #3 Ohio State. Ohio State was the returning national champion, but after an afternoon of hard-nosed Big Ten football, Ohio Native Lee Evans took a pass from backup Quarterback Matt Schabert 80 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Sure, it was the high water mark of an otherwise mediocre season, but it was also an Ohioan plunging the knife into a top-ranked Buckeye team.
#7: October 16, 2004: #10 Wisconsin 20, at #5 Purdue 17.
A battle of Big Ten unbeatens in West Lafayette, Wisconsin was coming off another road win over Ohio State, but the Boilermakers flashed their Heisman hopeful, Kyle Orton. Purdue took a 17-7 lead deep into the 4th quarter when John Stocco capped a 73-yard drive hitting Booker Stanley for a 7-yard score to pull within 3. Purdue took over with 5:23 remaining and started working the clock. 3rd and 2 at the Purdue 38, with 2:49 remaining. Two yards picks up a first down and all but seals the game. Even if they have to punt away, the Boilermakers can taste the win.
Purdue won every statistical category except for turnovers; the last one was the most painful.
Orton takes the snap and rolls to his right on a naked bootleg; he easily has room to pick up the first down to seal the game, and is upended by Scott Starks as he dives for the first down. Before he hits the ground, Badger safety Robert Brooks delivers a blow to the ball, swatting it loose. Starks picks it up and returns it 40 yards for the winning touchdown. This is only the second 7-0 start the Badgers have had since 1912 and the win vaults them to #6 in the country and they reach #4 -- as high a regular season ranking as I can remember -- before a catastrophic loss in East Lansing started a three-game skid to finish the year. Had the season ended better, this game would probably be higher on the list. As it is, it was a huge and thrilling Badger win.
#6: September 30, 1995, Wisconsin 17, at #6 Penn State 9.
Happy Valley is a tough place to play and in 1995 the Badgers were making their first trip to it as a Big Ten destination. Penn State was coming off of a 13-0 season in which they should've had at least a share of the National Championship (with Nebraska); the Nittany Lions hadn't lost since October 1993.
The Badgers made the trip -- and I made it along side them -- at 1-1-1, with a brutal home loss to Colorado and an unsatisfying tie at Stanford. The funny thing about road trips -- especially road trips that happened 13 years ago, is you don't tend to remember the games very well. The Badgers played inspired defense and, if I recall correctly, a 4th quarter touchdown sealed the improbable road upset. Things I remember for certain? We couldn't buy a keg in State College, and we couldn't buy beer on Sunday. Stupid blue laws, but a great win.
It was a tough year for the Badgers. The team would end up 4-5-2, a major letdown after a Rose Bowl win followed by a bowl victory in Tampa, but the win over Penn State was epic. Especially for those of us who were there.
#5: October 2, 1999, Wisconsin 42, at #12 Ohio State 17.
The Buckeyes have been there for us when we've needed them. Coming off the '98 Rose Bowl win with a top 10 preseason ranking, Barry's boys inexplicably lost to Cincinnati, then faltered, as usual, to Michigan. We were 2-2, hitting the road to Columbus, and watching things come apart in a hurry. My boss at the time, and still a good friend, was your typical non-Ohio State alum Buckeye fan. He couldn't wait to ruin my weekend with the Buckeye victory. Not thinking straight -- or remembering past upsets over the Buckeyes -- I laid a beer on the game (not being a betting man). He eagerly accepted.
I was driving north from Tennessee to Chicago that Saturday and the last report I heard was the Buckeyes had taken a 17-0 lead. The weird thing is, I didn't panic. Somehow I retained some confidence. The Badgers rewarded me by running off 42-straight, for a huge road win over a heavily favored opponent. That's all I know about the game. We won. I won a beer, and some pride. Oh, and it vaulted us back into the W column, which eventually led to a 17-9 victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
#4: January 2, 2006, Wisconsin 24, #7 Auburn 10, Capital One Bowl
Near national title contender Auburn. SEC speed. Slow, plodding, boring Wisconsin, who only got into the Capital One Bowl because Ohio State got an at-large bid into the BCS. Poor Barry Alvarez. Still hadn't beaten an SEC team, and was going to go out from his career as the Badger head man a loser. Not. So. Fast.
You want to talk about speed? Brian Calhoun made the Plainsmen look silly. Brandon Williams, Jonathan Orr, and Owen Daniels couldn't be stopped. The depleted Badger front 7 (sure NFL first rounder, Junior OT Joe Thomas played two ways, playing defensive tackle due to the Badger shortages and tearing his ACL during the game) owned Auburn all afternoon. Wisconsin went into the half with a 17-0 lead.
Auburn made it interesting, reeling off 10 straight, but after their touchdown to start the 4th quarter pulled them within 7 at 17-10, John Stocco led a 5-play, 65-yard drive, culminating with a 33-yard Calhoun run to the house. On the ensuing possession, Auburn stalled at the Wisconsin 47 and punted to the Badger 1. They never touched the ball again. The Badgers ground out 98 yards over the remaining 9 minutes and took a knee at the Auburn 2 to finish a dominating 24-10 win. Barry went out appropriately: a winner.
#3: January 1, 1999, #9 Wisconsin 38, #6 UCLA 31, Rose Bowl.
"The worst team ever to play in the Rose Bowl." That was, at least according to Craig James, your 1998 Wisconsin Badgers. It was Ron Dayne's junior year. Mike Samuel was under center. Chris Chambers was an unpolished deep threat. 11-1 notwithstanding, with only a single win over a ranked team (#14 Penn State), Wisconsin wasn't supposed to be in Pasadena. But there we were. Across the field from a legitimate national title contender with Heisman hopeful Cade McKnown and playing in their home stadium. Wisconsin was a 10-point dog.
It wasn't pretty -- the defense gave up 538 yards and 31 points -- but it was enough. The Bruins had no answer for Ron Dayne, who averaged over 9 yards per carry and scored all 4 offensive touchdowns (seen here, here, here, here, and here). Late in the game, with a slight 31-28 lead, Freshman Jamar Fletcher stepped in front of DeShaun Foster on a deep route to midfield. Fletcher made the pick and followed a convoy of blockers to the house, to give the Badgers a 10-point lead with 14 minutes to play. The Badgers held on for the win. Suck it, Craig James.
#2, January 1, 1994, #9 Wisconsin 21, #13 UCLA 16, Rose Bowl
It had been 31 years since our last trip. Wisconsin had never won the Granddaddy of them all. Barry told us he could do it in 5 years, but the Badgers hadn't had a winning season since 1984. This was Barry's fourth year. We were 9-1-1. We partied on State Street when we saw the Badgers beat Sparty in Japan (a home game we gave up for the travel opportunity) after Michigan upset Ohio State (28-0, if I recall). We were going to the Rose Bowl.
I waited in line in the early morning in freezing weather under Camp Randall to get my tickets. One of my buddies got on a plane for the first time to fly out and stay with me in California and to make the 6-hour drive down to Pasadena. We saw friends there we didn't know were going. The Rose Bowl, UCLA's home, was 70% red. It was 80 degrees in Pasadena and -60 in Madison (with the windchill). That's a 140 degree difference, for those of you counting at home. It was just meant to be.
Brent Moss up the middle. You cheered when he got the ball, it didn't matter if it was stopped for no gain. You just knew it was right (158 yards and two touchdowns later, it sure was). Terrell Fletcher changed things up. Lee DeRamus was a deep threat. Joe Panos. Darell Bevell. Jeff Messenger. Ugly beauty in cardinal red.
UCLA's JJ Stokes tore off large chunks of yardage in the middle of the field setting a record for receiving yards, but just as they had all season, the Badgers' lunch-pail defense forced 6 turnovers to hold the Bruins in check.
We were up 14-3 going into the 4th quarter, but a UCLA touchdown pulled them within 4. Then Darrell Bevell rolled out and ran -- for crying out loud, he never ran! -- for a 21-yard touchdown to give us an 11-point lead. UCLA made us sweat with a final push, but the Badgers held at midfield, and the party was on. Wisconsin Badgers, Rose Bowl Champions. Unbelievable.
So what can top that?
#1: October 30, 1993, #21 Wisconsin 13, #24 Michigan 10. Wisconsin football: for real.
Is this really the top game? Better than Rose Bowl wins? Better than upsets of top 5 teams? For me it is. There we were, 6-1, heading to Camp Randall for the first real big test, just a week after a devastating loss to a terrible Minnesota in the Metrodome. We were better than we had been, but after nine years of losing records, were we much better? Big Blue would tell us. And on the night Madison would celebrate Halloween. Always a good party, that night was EPIC.
My memory of the game isn't great. I remember we scored a touchdown and all the students in my area of Camp Randall dog piled. It was amazing. When it happened it just felt like we had finally arrived. That score had been huge. I remember it was tense at the end, but we were confident. Then it ended, and "we" had done it. The Badgers were on the football map. We weren't a mediocre team beating other mediocre teams, we were good. Maybe really good. Maybe, just maybe, Rose Bowl good.
Unfortunately, either the Badger Herald or the Daily Cardinal, I don't remember which, published a big ad, or something of the sort, saying that the students should do what Michigan's Tyrone Wheatley wouldn't do: run all over Camp Randall. After the game, we tried. For one bad reason after another, that caused the Crush. 5 pulseless non-breathers (thank God they all recovered). A dorm-mate of mine from freshman year on the cover of Sports Illustrated crying out for help. We made it down to the field, but came from way over and high up in section L or so. We went around the big mass of people, without any idea what had happened. That night we knew. It seems callous now, but at the time we toasted the injured (75 of them, it turns out) and continued on with our epic party, live band, kegs draining in a hurry.
In the dog pile, my best friend lost his wallet with about $200 in cash in it. Someone turned it into the UW police, who called him on Sunday to let him know they had it. Would you believe the money was still there?
So there it is. I don't really even remember my top game, but I know it was the best. That was the day we arrived. The Alvarez Era to be. #1.
- 1993, 41-20 over Michigan State in Japan to put us in that first Rose Bowl
- 1997, 13-10 upset over #12 Iowa
- 1998, 24-3 over #13 Penn state to put us in the Rose Bowl against UCLA
- 1999, 41-3 shellacking of Iowa, which is always nice, plus Dayne set the NCAA D-1 rushing record
- 2000, Rose Bowl win, 17-9, over Stanford. They may actually have been the worst team ever to play in the Rose Bowl and we played down to their level. At least that's always how I've seen it.
- 2005, 38-34 at Minnesota, Casillas improbably blocks a punt in the final minute to give Barry one last victory over the Gophers and one last chance to carry the axe.
- 2007, Capital One Bowl win, 17-14, over Arkansas. Big win, but probably the worst feeling win I can remember; the second half was just brutal to watch.