The last time Wisconsin went head-to-head on the gridiron with Penn State, a trip to the Rose Bowl was on the line for the Badgers. On this date in history, Nov. 21, 1998, the Badgers were victorious at Camp Randall by a score of 24-3.
Wisconsin then went on to win its second Rose Bowl under coach Barry Alvarez.
A lot has happened since then, but Wisconsin playing Penn State in football is not one of them. Due to discrepancies in the Big Ten schedule, the two schools, both Big Ten powers in the 1990s, have not played for the past two seasons. While a trip to the Rose Bowl is not on the line for the Badgers, as was the case in 1998, a chance to open conference play with a win and even up their record at 2-2 is at stake.
Meanwhile, Penn State is looking for its first win of the season, a win that will coincidentally give head coach Joe Paterno his 324th career victory, tying him with Bear Bryant as the NCAA Division I-A’s all-time winningest coach.
However, though this series has become a solid Big Ten rivalry, the Badgers have only played the Nittany Lions six times in their history, since Penn State didn’t join the Big Ten until 1993. The Badgers hold the lead in the all-time series, with a record of 4-2. UW is 3-1 at Madison, while the two teams have split a pair of games at Happy Valley. In the first meeting between the two, in 1953, Wisconsin won 20-0 at Madison. However, the two didn’t meet in a Big Ten match up until 1995, when the unranked Badgers upset the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions 17-9 at Happy Valley. Penn State, ranked No. 3, beat the Badgers in Madison in 1996 by a score of 23-20. The Nittany Lions followed up that win with a 35-10 shellacking of the Badgers at Happy Valley in 1997 before the Badgers won their 1998 match-up.
While Wisconsin has become familiar with the players and the system used in the last couple of years by other Big Ten schools, one concern about playing Penn State might be unfamiliarity.
“We’ve never played there, at least sine I’ve been here, and this is my fourth year, so this is the first time for pretty much everyone on the team,” said UW defensive lineman Ben Herbert.
It is often difficult to gauge teams when you are unfamiliar with their players or the current system they run. However, with Joe Paterno as the head coach for what is his 36th season, Penn State’s philosophy has remained largely the same. There is not a lot of difference between the way Penn State plays now and the way they’ve played in the past against the Badgers, according to UW offensive coordinator Brian White.
“Well, they have the same head coach, the same philosophy,” White said.
“Structurally on defense they’re pretty similar to when we’ve played them in the past.”
What may be overlooked is the fact that Wisconsin and Penn State were arguably the two most successful Big Ten teams in the 1990s. The Nittany Lions had the best Big Ten record in that span, while the Badgers captured three Rose Bowl titles, the most by any Big Ten team in the decade. When two successful teams go head-to-head, rivalries are quick to develop.
So on Saturday, Wisconsin and Penn State will strap on the pads and engage in another battle. While the history books show that this will only be their seventh battle, this rivalry is already starting to feel like an old-school Big Ten fight. As far as these two teams are concerned, this rivalry has gone back for as long as they can remember.