Think it was important for the Badgers to win Saturday?
Never mind that — on a day that No. 1 USC, No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 6 California all came within stone-throwing distance of losses (and with No. 3 Auburn slated to host No. 5 Georgia next weekend) — in the eyes of many around the nation, No. 4 Wisconsin’s dominant performance legitimized the claim that it belongs among the handful of realistic contenders for a national championship.
Never mind that — with coast-biased perception saying that the Big Ten is a disaster and with Michigan squeaking its way to one-score victories over Purdue and Michigan State in its past two games — for Wisconsin to remain in contention for any sort of BCS bowl, it needs to stay undefeated.
And never mind that — with Paul Bunyan’s axe at stake — in the past 15 years, out of three times that either Minnesota or Wisconsin has been unbeaten late in the season, only once has that team escaped the border rivalry with it’s perfect record intact.
The Badgers’ 38-14 victory Saturday meant much more than any of that. It meant that a class of 24 Wisconsin legends-in-the-making walked off the field for the final time with their heads held sky high.
“This senior team has been our guiding force — through spring ball, through summer conditioning, through fall conditioning, through these first eight games going into today,” defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said.
“We tried to dedicate the game to the seniors,” head coach Barry Alvarez added. “It’s been an outstanding group as far as giving us leadership and following our plan and doing everything we’ve asked them to do. The last game at Camp Randall is always an important one for the seniors.”
And what a way for that group to go out. The Badgers ended the game for the Gophers before they ever realized it had started.
“It was a great feeling — coming out in this last home game for all the seniors and playing like we did,” senior free safety Jim Leonhard said. “The weather, how the crowd was and then to come out and get an early lead and stay on them the rest of the game: it was just picture perfect.”
After the game, senior cornerback and gunner extraordinaire Scott Starks gave the fans a taste of the exuberance that was clear on the faces of the entire Badgers’ roster.
Showing off his freakish 4.28 speed, Starks burst from a sprinter’s crouch to beat the rest of his team to Paul Bunyan’s axe with time to spare. After giving its case a stutter-step, Starks raised the axe for the record home crowd to appreciate. It was a moment Starks said he had thought about for some time.
“That was fun,” he said. “I wasn’t gonna let nobody beat me this year. It was fun to touch it first and put it up in the air.”
Tailback Anthony Davis — probably one of the few Badgers that could have given Starks a race — is happy just to be a part of a team that has accomplished so much.
“It’s something that we all set goals to do,” Davis said. “That’s the legacy that we leave.”
What did it mean for the Badgers to win Saturday? It means that the final time Scott Starks stood alone on the turf between a special teams series and a defensive series, the final time Anttaj Hawthorne showed off his dance moves after the third quarter and the final time Jimmy Leonhard gave high fives to fans as he walked out the tunnel, they were doing so after completing a perfect home season.
For 24 seniors, it meant more than BCS rankings, Big Ten standings and Paul Bunyan memorabilia combined.