After the near miss to lowly Boise State two weeks ago, Wisconsin finally aligned their wheels to the track with a blowout of San Jose State out in the Bay Area. This week, the Badgers welcomed another team from California. San Diego State was no slouch, but Badger fans were in need of a comfortable win to gain some confidence in their team.
Boise State and I had one big thing in common when entering this game. We both were experiencing our first game at a higher level. For me, this was my first game as a student at UW-Madison. For Boise State, this was their first game playing a Division I-A team as a member of the same division. I suppose you could say that we were both freshmen. My brother, who got all of us tickets in the senior section, made that fact abundantly clear by chanting, “FRESHMAN!”, while pointing at me. My face turned a Badger red.
The Kickoff Classic had become a highlight for college football as it “kicked off” the start of a new season. Played in Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the event has seen many great players, teams, and games. This year’s battle was featured as the duel between Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb and Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne. It had all the elements of being a classic clash.
The game between the Gophers and Badgers is the longest consecutive running rivalry in college football. They have played every year since 1890. Since 1948, they have played for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, which has the scores of every game between the two teams carved into the handle. The last time Minnesota visited Camp Randall Stadium, they shocked the Badgers with an upset. This year, the Badgers looked to erase the memory of that disaster with a dose of revenge.
The Badgers were dragging a four game losing streak behind them as they entered this game with Purdue. The Boilermakers were dangerous, but suffering their own tribulations with a 2-5 record. Barry Alvarez was under heavy scrutiny with this season spilling over from last season.
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.