This game had every bit of drama followed by the one of the most stunning finishes that I have ever witnessed. The Wildcats looked to be putting together another Big Ten championship run when they rolled into Madison. The Badgers were coming off two three-point losses to Penn State and Ohio State. Both needed the victory.
Up to this point, I had seen every Big Ten team – except Michigan. Without question, I was looking very forward to seeing the famous maize and blue with their historical winged helmets. On top of that, I was excited that this was my first game that did not involve Wisconsin. I felt like I was broadening my horizons a bit. Last year, during Northwestern’s unbelievable Rose Bowl run, I was unable to attend any of their games. So, I was completely clad in purple looking forward to seeing the new and improved Wildcat team.
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.
Stanford would be the first Pacific Ten Conference team that I would see play in Madison. This battle of identical team colors resulted in any Stanford fans blending into the crowd. I looked at this game like a mini Rose Bowl with the Pac-10 and Big-10 clashing. The weather offered up another sticky, sweaty, September Saturday afternoon.
No preseason rank. Expectations running medium to low. Wisconsin football tasted the pavement last year by not returning to a bowl and the bitterness carried over into the 1996 season. Eastern Michigan came in to Madison sporting a new look and a heightened spirit. Something told me that this would not be the same 56-0 shutout that the Badgers dropped on the Eagles two years ago. Yet still, this was Big Ten football against Middle American Conference football. No matter how Wisconsin would bounce back from last year, it certainly couldn’t be with a loss to EMU.
I have not yet seen Iowa in person, but I have heard stories. Their fans travel extremely well and their players had a tendency to be cocky when playing the Badgers. Head coach Hayden Frye was the ringleader of this team, and his successful recruiting efforts in the state of Wisconsin certainly had much to do with the team’s puffed chests. However, this season has not been one to gloat about in Iowa City. The Hawks were riding a four game losing streak coming into Camp Randall Stadium. However, they also hadn’t lost to the Badgers since 1976. Wisconsin came into the game with a record of 4-4-1 and winning was mandatory if they were to expect a bowl invitation. Iowa needed just one victory to secure post-season action.
After defeating #7 Penn State on the road, Wisconsin dropped its next two to #4 Ohio State and #11 Northwestern to set their record at 2-3-1. Northwestern’s 35-0 victory demoralized the Badgers on route to their stunning 8-0 Big Ten Championship season. Therefore, coming into the game with 4-2-1 Michigan State, Badger fans were not expecting much from their team.
This would be my first time watching a would-be Heisman Trophy winner in action. Ohio State running back, Eddie George, led fourth ranked Ohio State into Camp Randall Stadium. Based on the first three games of this season, Wisconsin would seem like a chew toy for the Buckeyes. But, last week’s win at #7 Penn State jumped the Badgers into the top 25 suddenly making Wisconsin vs. Ohio State the game of the week.
Two games into the season and the Badgers were in desperate need of a win. The punishing loss to Colorado to open the season was nothing short of a shock. Following that infamous evening was a trip to the Bay Area to play Stanford, which resulted in a 24-24 tie. So, Madison is the site for a game that the Badgers were expected to win. The Mustangs came in at 1-2.
There was so much hype surrounding this game that fans may not have seen a blowout coming. Originally, this game was to be played during the day, but due to its attractiveness, ABC picked it up and used it as part of their Saturday night lineup. Even without Brent Musburger and ABC, the game had built in hype. Both teams were ranked in the top 25, it was the season opener for both teams, Colorado and Wisconsin were both coming off New Years Day bowl victories and once again, the game was at night. Electricity is high in Madison for every game. But, give the fans an entire day to party? Camp Randall was rockin’ and ready for this contest. Many teams are accustomed to having every game nationally televised. Wisconsin was just getting used to it and Barry Alvarez was the physician who breathed life back into the program.