The 1999 Wisconsin Badgers won the conference championship outright, saw a career rushing record broken and captured its second consecutive Rose Bowl victory.
But it wasn’t all happy sailings.
Wisconsin was 2-2 heading into the match-up in Columbus against the Ohio State Buckeyes. What started out as a possible route turned out to be the start of a streak that took them all the way to Pasadena.
Here’s an excerpt of the game, with key players’ insights, from Walk-On This Way: The On-Going Legacy of the Wisconsin Football Walk-On Tradition:
After two dominating performances to start the 1999 season against Murray State and Ball State, the Badgers confidence was riding high. The next two games, however, would stunt their momentum.
UW traveled to face the Cincinnati Bearcats on September 18 in front of 27,000 fans. Statistically, Wisconsin overwhelmed their non-conference foe 425-261 in total yards. Dayne ran for 231 of UW’s 340 rushing yards and a touchdown, and in the process broke former Ohio State running back Archie Griffin’s all-time Big Ten rushing mark.
Costly mistakes and poor play from quarterback Scott Kavanagh, however, doomed the Badgers’ chances at getting out of Ohio with a win. Dayne fumbled close to the Bearcats’ goal line. A last-minute touchdown pass from Kavanagh to a young Lee Evans was called back by an illegal motion penalty.
Wisconsin committed eight penalties, while Kavanagh completed only 8-of- 21 passes in what would be a 17-12 upset. It’s a defeat Tauscher and Thompson concede still pierces the emotions of those who played in that game.
The hard luck continued the following week facing No. 4 Michigan in the conference opener. Tom Brady again defeated the Badgers, throwing for 217 yards and two touchdowns. Dayne was held to a meager 88 yards on 22 carries, while Kavanagh again completed less than 50 percent of his passes.
Redshirt freshman Brooks Bollinger took over and would help draw UW within five points with under 90 seconds left in the game after his 13-yard touchdown run. The Badgers could not pull off the home victory, though, falling 21-16.
Now 2-2, the Badgers had to go to “The Horseshoe” to face the Buckeyes. Bollinger, who completed 6-of-9 passes against Michigan, would face national power Ohio State in his first career start.
It did not start well. By 10:23 in the second quarter, the Badgers were down 17-0. They went into the locker room down 17-6 after a pair of Vitaly Pisetsky field goals. A season once so hopeful was on the verge of collapse.
The locker room scene in Columbus, though, would be the turning point of the season. Tauscher recalled UW Director of Athletics Pat Richter reiterating how special the team was – something the former right tackle believed was powerful in regaining the team’s confidence. Alvarez, who coached from the press box during the game because of a swollen right knee, came down and rallied his team. His words to the beleaguered squad ignited a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Coach Alvarez comes in the locker room,” Thompson recalled, “and to this day I don’t know or understand how he had the confidence to do this, but he told us exactly how we were going to win. He came in and said, ‘We’re going down, we’re going to cause a fumble on the opening kickoff, and the next play, we’re going to give the ball to Ron and we’re going to score – and we’re going to come back and beat Ohio State.’”
Truer words were never spoken.
Michael Wiley took the second-half kickoff for the Buckeyes and was hit by Ryan Marks, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Wisconsin deep in OSU territory. Dayne scored his first of four second-half touchdowns on way to the Badgers racking up 42 unanswered points. Bollinger completed 15-of- 27 passes on the day, the defense held OSU’s offense to only 113 yards in the second half, and UW escaped Columbus with a 42-17 victory.
The Badgers wouldn’t look back, reeling off a string of eight straight wins.
“I really don’t know, but they remind me of that,” Alvarez replied when asked about his halftime proclamation to his players. “It was something spontaneous. You don’t think about those things. I never had anything planned on what to say although I knew I had to get their attention. You’re at Ohio State. You’re in a tough environment, you’re behind but I sensed that we were a better team.”
“He would do that throughout the course of the year,” former nose tackle Eric Mahlik said. “He would tell us where we were going to be, and I think that we believed in his message so much that that’s what would end up happening. He had such a great connection with the team, his players, and his coaches that his message was spot on.”
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