If the first three games of the 1996 campaign were “blah,” then the game against Penn State would offer the contrast. Both the Nittany Lions and the Badgers came in undefeated. Yet, Penn State was heavily favored to win. This would be my first introduction to PSU head coach, Joe Paterno. I almost watched him more than the game itself – everything from his fame filled hiked-up khakis and running shoes to his age defying exuberance captivated my interest. We all were in the presence of a legend. And yet, one would think that the series between Penn State and Wisconsin would favor PSU. However, Wisconsin held a 3-0 all time advantage over the blue and white.
There was little evidence supporting a continuation of that streak this year even through last year, Wisconsin shocked Penn State in State College, PA. On this particular day, Penn State came in ranked third and sporting a mean defense. They pitched shut-outs in their last two games and were holding teams to an average of 3.5 points per game. On this sunny and breezy day in Madison, the Badgers had to rely on a reenergized crowd, a soon-to-be famous running back’s Big Ten debut, and the toe of an inconsistent kicker. Penn State’s entrance was grand with JoePa leading the way and those classic all white uniforms pouring onto the field like sugar in a bowl. Their uniforms made Wisconsin’s red appear even more vibrant.
The Badgers received the ball first and marched straight down the field undaunted. Wisconsin had to settle for a field goal from the powerful, yet shaky leg of John Hall. His 42-yarder rocketed in the air and put the Badgers ahead 3-0. I slapped five with my brother and thought, “well at least no shut-out today.” Penn State matched the effort with a field goal of their own from the reliable Brett Conway. With the score at 3-3, no one really knew what to expect.
Penn State began to take over with a few powerful runs from Curtis Enis. Two touchdowns later, the scoreboard read 17-3. Wisconsin’s hopes began to dwindle. A few Penn State band members had made the trip and the faint sound of “Fight On State” could be heard in the south corner of the stadium.
This would be the day, however, that future Heisman winner, Ron Dayne, would prove his worth. A Badger march put Wisconsin at the PSU ten yard line late in the first half. From the ten, Dayne took the ball and carried a few Penn State defensive men into the endzone. There was now hope and despite a field goal at the end of the half by Penn State, the score was within reach at 20-10.
The second half was Wisconsin’s turn to showcase a little defense. The Badgers held Penn State away from any points in the third quarter and by the fourth quarter, it was Dayne’s turn again to shine. Like a pinball, Dayne took the ball from about the fifteen of PSU to bounce and collide his way into the endzone. Suddenly, there was an energy in the stadium that was reminiscent of the Rose Bowl run. Two possessions later, Penn State’s quarterback threw an interception which resulted in a deafening roar. A field goal by John Hall tied the game at 20 with a few minutes left.
JoePa’s team wasn’t finished, though, and they were determined to show why they were ranked third. A slow, steady march down field by the Lions was sealed by a Brett Conway field goal with under a minute left. The score was 23-20 Penn State and Wisconsin was not famous for its two-minute offense. But, a few quick darts downfield set up John Hall for a 57 yard attempt. An anxious crowd prayed for a chance in overtime as the ball was snapped back. Hall sent another rocket into the air and it had the distance, but it was a breezy day. Whether it was a natural hook or a sneeze from Mother Nature, Hall’s kick drifted ever so slightly to the left as time expired. Joe Paterno breathed a breeze of relief, while that kick would kick off a dismal October for the Badgers.