by Maxwell Brusky
A few weeks back, Mark Packer’s College Football Today posed an interesting question: “What’s the most satisfying win for your team in recent times?” The formally undefined “recent times” reasonably being the last 5-10 years or so, or at least recent enough to be relevant to the team’s current status or state. These could be “rivalry” games, bowl games or any games, really, but the question was the “most satisfying” to you, the College Football fan. Let’s even take the query a step further: what recent victory would you opine to be the “most significant”? So, what say you, the Wisconsin Badger fan?
Here is, at least, a pool of potentials, which takes “recent times” to be the freshly concluded Bielema tenure. With all due respect, the Alvarez Era (the “Choke Game” victory over 17-game win streak Ohio State in ’03; the Big Ten opener in ‘05 over Michigan; or the coach’s last game, the Capital One Bowl win over supremely cocky Auburn would be “recent”) can’t count because it is, in fact, history. The candidates are as follows (feel free, of course, to add):
Capital One Bowl, 2007 (2006 season), #6 UW 17 - #12 Arkansas 14
New head coach Bret Bielema had just concluded an 11-1 regular season with the one loss coming in the Big Ten opener at the Big House and to the only ranked team the ’06 Badgers faced until the bowl game. The loss was significant, as Michigan didn’t lose again until falling in that year’s epic edition of The Game, and because of its win over UW, earned the conference’s other BCS berth (Rose Bowl). With this backdrop, both for team and rookie head coach, UW had something to prove against the No. 12 Razorbacks, who had gone 10-3 on the strength of a pro-laden backfield (Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis).
The game was a “vintage” (read Alvarez) UW grinder that the Badgers held on for dear life to eventually win. The Badgers actually made their best progress through the air, with senior QB John Stocco throwing two TD passes to conclude pass-heavy drives (and shrugging off two INTs).
UW matched the SEC’s speed, as well, with the most memorable play being CB Jack Ikewguonu saving a TD by chasing McFadden down over 40 yards in the early going. Note: Why in the hell is this game (or the previous year’s Capital One Bowl) NEVER replayed on the Big Ten Network??
Champs Sports Bowl, 2009, #24 UW 20 - #14 Miami, 14
The 2009 season saw success (all Big Ten opponents kept under 100 yards rushing; Big Ten Offensive POY, RB John Clay), but it was frustratingly qualified by silly losses: to Iowa at home after going up 10-0 only to give up 20 unanswered; at Ohio State on three non-offensive TDs (two pick-sixes and a KO return) despite outgaining OSU 368-184 (22-8 1st downs!); and at Northwestern to finish the Big Ten slate (with NW QB Mike Kafka throwing for 364 yards and UW blowing a late scoring chance on a, by-that-point-rare, John Clay fumble).
Although the 9-3 Badgers were bumped from New Year’s Day and relegated again to the Champs Sports Bowl, the venue offered a chance for redemption, from the previous season’s beatdown by Florida State in particular, and from the awful 2008 season in general. In a game where both teams were loaded with future pros on both sides of the ball (combined 5 tight ends eventually drafted, just for example), UW was up to the challenge this time – but for a game-opening 85-yd kickoff return to set up a touchdown, and a late game rally that actually necessitated a fourth down stop after Miami recovered an onside kick, the Badgers rolled, out gaining Miami 433-184 until those last three minutes.
The DE duo of O’Brien Schofield and JJ Watt was frenetic and punishing, freshman LB Chris Borland showed why he was league’s best rookie, TE Lance Kendricks exploded, and an offensive line stacked with future pros and All-Americans lived up to its reputation (170 yards rushing; 1 sack allowed). The game was Bielema’s third victory over a higher-ranked team (and first since 2007) and nicely capped off a mixed season, but in many ways, the victory can be seen as the gateway to UW’s unprecedented success for the next two seasons.
2010, at Camp Randall: #18 UW 31 - #1 Ohio State 18
Everyone’s pick, right? UW led 21-3 on the strength of David Gilreath’s TD return of the opening kickoff, followed by two quarters of a dominant rushing attack led by UW’s surging offensive line and what was probably John Clay’s best performance at UW. Still, the Buckeyes were able to pull within 21-18 as UW sagged on both sides of the ball in the third quarter.
UW responded, and changed the momentum for good when QB Scott Tolzien completed a third and long pass to WR Nick Toon along the sideline (and past All-American CB Chimdi Chekwa), which eventually led to a 12-yard TD run by freshman RB James White.
After forcing an OSU punt on the ensuing drive, Tolzien worked a demoralizing long completion off play-action to RS freshman TE Jacob Pedersen, which led to a UW field goal. The Buckeyes would not cross midfield again; UW built and then held for good a lead against the top team in the land and the class of the conference.
The representative moment occurred during the post-game chaos (Camp Randall up for grabs for the first time in YEARS): on the ABC feed, pre-disgrace Jim Tressel, pointedly but in his trademark genial manner, walked directly up to Tolzien to shake his hand – the victorious QB stopped in tracks upon seeing Tressel coming, gently snapped his cleats together, and put his helmet on the ground in front of said feet to accept the (erstwhile) Senator’s heartfelt gesture.
2010, at Kinnick Stadium, #10 UW 31 - #13 Iowa 30
The very next game – the one everyone knew they had to win in order to back up the previous weekend’s victory beyond the fluke of simply catching the Buckeyes on the road on a bad night. (OK, I was actually at this game, in about the sixth or seventh row of the west stands on about the 25 yard line from the north end zone, surrounded, of course, by black and gold.) The game was a literal clash of Big Ten titans at that particular time, a back and forth affair that featured big-play passes, big-play runs, and timely defensive stops.
UW converted several fourth downs, including two on the game-winning TD drive – the first on a brilliant fake punt from the UW 25 and the second on a catch from the slot/wing by one Montee Ball, who spent the previous game on the bench (as he’s acknowledged, his low point as a Badger).
Ball stepped up when he became the sole bell-cow back in the third quarter after both White and Clay left with injuries, and went on to score the game-tying TD on a thoroughly tough-guy run in which he broke at least four tackles. In other words, make no mistake, the Legend of Montee Ball was born in this game.
Along with White and Clay though, Toon, Kendricks, and future All-American C Peter Konz were also sidelined with injuries. This game not only showed the champion’s resolve that UW was now beginning to cultivate, but also the true roster depth it had accumulated.
The stat sheet tells the story of a hard-fought game as well: Score: 31-30; Yards: UW 347 to Iowa 376; 1st Downs: UW 24 to Iowa’s 23; and sack for each team – UW’s being a full-on JJ Watt special of a scrambling Ricky Stanzi on Iowa’s last (futile) drive. Future NFL star Watt actually decided this game in retrospect – this timely sack was critical, but it was his blocked extra point after Iowa’s first touchdown that turned out to be the difference.
The Hawkeye nation in attendance was visibly and audibly stunned when the clock reached zero after some of the most inexplicable clock/timeout management in Kirk Ferentz’s entire career, and, of course, as Badger players raced across the field to a point directly in front of me to physically reclaim the Heartland Trophy.
Big Ten Championship, 2011: #15 UW 42 - #11 Michigan State 39
To get to the inaugural Big Ten title game, UW had to come back from consecutive gut punches – Hail freakin’ Marys – that literally took them out of the National Championship game (literally – the second probably doesn’t happen without the first, but had the second one not happened, a UW with one loss on a Hail Mary would have played for all the marbles).
The team, however, persevered and completed the mission with victories over Minnesota (not contested), Illinois (excruciating first half until the hapless Illini fell apart and QB Scheelhaase left injured), and Penn State (45-7, with all UW points unanswered; PSU had some excuses for a weak performance).
The game began much as the fateful regular season match did, with UW taking an early 21-7 lead and the Spartans eerily controlling the next two quarters to take a 29-21 lead. The teams traded scores until UW faced a fourth and 5 from the MSU 42 with about 4:00 to go – once-in-generation UW QB Russell Wilson heaved a prayer (a Hail Mary??) some 36 yards down and across the field from an awkward, rolling position to where it was hauled in by reserve WR Jeff Duckworth amidst double coverage, giving UW new life inside the MSU ten.
After Ball’s fourth TD of the game (3 rushing) and a nifty two-point conversion pass to TE Jacob Pedersen later, UW led 42-39. MSU couldn’t convert a third and long pass to a narrowly out-of-bounds WR Keyshawn Martin and punted. UW then went three-and-out and punted with under two minutes left. MSU curiously called for a block and was rewarded with disaster, with otherwise solid MSU S Isaiah Lewis running into UW P Brad Nortman as he kicked the ball away.
MSU returner Martin actually brought the kick all the way back to inside the UW 5, but in what truly returned for UW the utterly irrational and unpredictable Hail Mary favor to MSU, the minor infraction for running into the kicker was called (for Sparty fans, perhaps in some part due to Nortman’s sales job).
UW ball. Game over. UW to the Rose Bowl for the second straight year (and again over incipient UW-nemesis MSU, whose BCS ranking just didn’t cut the mustard the year before in a three-way tie for the league title).
Big Ten Championship, 2012: NR UW 70 - #14 Nebraska 31
The Nebraska off a six-game win streak; the Nebraska that had climbed to No. 14 by dint of that streak; the Nebraska that was yet again in a league title game, this time the one for its new conference; and the Nebraska that in the conference opener two months prior completely shut down UW’s wildly inconsistent offense in the second half to come back from two 17 point deficits against UW and take the first match, 30-27.
This Nebraska may have brought all that to the game, but as they had several times during the regular season, they left their Blackshirts back in Lincoln and were about to let further wilt their already thoroughly middling defensive numbers (27.6 points and 361 yards per game).
UW started strong, with its opening drive resulting in a touchdown by RB Melvin Gordon from midfield on an end around (which would work almost all night long), and then with CB Marcus Cromartie returning a tipped pass for a TD on the ensuing play from scrimmage. Martinez “magic”-ally escaped from a charging DE Brendan Kelly on third and long inside the UW 20 and, in a run for the ages, scampered through the (seemingly whole) remainder of UW’s defense for TD.
That was just about it for Nebraska; the rest of the night belonged to UW, who fully opened offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s heretofore (and as some have intimated, purposefully?) underutilized playbook, throwing up play after play out of the wildcat-look “Barge” formation, going back to those previously-mentioned end-arounds (with one of them turned into a near-TD pass by WR Jared Abbrederis to QB Curt Phillips), and even completing a pass out of the very rarely seen (for anyone, let alone UW) “Zebra” formation.
That was not all. UW’s offensive line also looked fully back to form, opening massive holes for UW’s backs, including a #freed Gordon, who racked up 216 yards on an astounding 9 carries. UW’s defense was locked in, forcing four turnovers and befuddling Nebraska on nearly every one of its third downs with a new-look “Amoeba” formation featuring just two bookend down-linemen and almost everyone else not in man coverage furtively moving around pre-snap and prepared to swarm from any direction.
UW staked itself to a 42-10 lead at half and didn’t let up after that until it led 70-24. When it was over, UW had dropped 640 yards on the stunned Huskers – with a whopping 539 of them rushing. For team that had gone only its first two weeks ranked, gone through three quarterbacks, fired and replaced an all-important offensive line coach, and lost three games in overtime en route to an 8-5 regular season (with three losses by a field goal and none more than a touchdown), there was only one word:
Of this pool, the victory over Iowa in 2010 stands out as the most satisfying and the most significant - and it’s not just because I was there. Despite its league-opening (and shorthanded) loss to Michigan State, UW was riding high going into this game. But what would a loss here have done? That’s all academic because the victory here legitimized the easily bigger one the week before.
Without sustaining that momentum, which was significantly bolstered even further by Iowa’s subsequent whipping of the then-undefeated Spartans the next week (while UW was on a bye), it’s not far-fetched to suggest that the Badgers don’t make their long-awaited return to the Rose Bowl that season, dependent as it was on UW’s BCS position relative to those Spartans and Buckeyes with whom they were tied at season’s end.
What is more, and also apparent only in retrospect, this game was also when eventual two-time consensus All-American and NCAA all-time record touchdown scorer Montee Ball began his legend. At the time, Ball, who’s been so, so critical to the UW’s success (if not also its image, nationally) the last three seasons, was an also-ran who showed up here and there but was notably on the bench for all of the previous week’s victory. He took over as the lead back during this game (going to 996 yards rushing for 2010) and never again gave it up, winding up second only to Ron Dayne in UW’s hallowed career rushing annals (5,140 yards). That all started here.
The game may have been Bielema’s finest hour, too – a Hawkeye-for-life friend said, after the game, that Bielema has more of Hayden Fry in him than Ferentz does, which is about the highest possible praise given the context. The coach got the result in a big game between ranked teams in an all-time slugfest (against his alma mater in its home stadium) that had in it, literally, everything good about Big Ten football. The most satisfying and significant win of Bielema’s tenure – that is, in recent UW football history? That’s the one over Iowa in 2010.