There’s a scene in the epic Martin Scorsese film “Gangs of New York” in which Daniel Day-Lewis’ character, Bill the Butcher, refers to a picture of his long-dead rival on the wall and utters, “He was the only man I ever killed worth remembering.”
To me, the only rivalry in recent years worth remembering for the Wisconsin football program is its games against Michigan State. It’s a matchup that for the past two years has provided some tremendous games, memorable endings and direct implications on the Big Ten title.
So what makes a rivalry great? It’s not just a few classic games, great players or great programs. It’s the key similarities the two programs share over several years.
Whether it’s an in-state rivalry of teams that compete throughout the year for recruits or donations or a battle between annual national title contenders, the similarities teams share through multiple years help build and cement long-standing tides of dissent and create the annual games we circle on the schedule.
But that’s not why the Spartans and Badgers are rivals.
At the beginning of my time at the University of Wisconsin in 2008 — back when I was a biased fan, before journalism forced me to become neutral — I remember the games I was especially excited for were Ohio State and Penn State coming to Camp Randall.
Why? For eons, or at least for as long as I can remember, whenever anyone talked Big Ten football, the same old names were brought up: Lloyd Carr and Michigan (who had just recently stepped down), Jim Tressel and Ohio State and Joe Paterno and Penn State. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions were both storied programs, and I was eager to finally have the chance to attend a game where the Badgers would get their chance to prove their brass against some of the best players the conference could offer.
But the 2008 season wasn’t kind to Bret Bielema and his team. Losing a close game to Ohio State and then-freshman Terrelle Pryor 20-17 under the lights, Wisconsin fell the following week to Penn State at home 49-7 in one of the soundest beatings I have still ever witnessed as a fan. The team went on to finish the year at a disappointing 7-6.
But things changed monumentally in 2010. And that’s where the story of the Spartans and Badgers kicks off.
We’ve already read all about it, how Wisconsin lost in East Lansing but was awarded a trip to the Rose Bowl because of owning the third-level tiebreaker (overall BCS standing) over Michigan State and Ohio State. And yes, billboards were posted over Michigan highways depicting the final score of the Spartans-Badgers game with a rose.
Then, in 2011, a Hail Mary in East Lansing, a fourth-down conversion from Russell Wilson to Jeff Duckworth, a play that made Brad Nortman legendary — these are what have made, over the past three years, the Wisconsin-Michigan State game feel like more of an old-school Clint Eastwood western than your average conference matchup.
This rivalry, for fans of both teams, is about hating the team that seems to play the spoiler every year. Last season, Michigan State derailed Wisconsin’s national championship push in what was supposed to be a fairy tale season. For the Spartans, the Badgers represent a two-year roadblock that has prevented them from reaching the Rose Bowl with some of their better teams in recent memory.
Wisconsin and Michigan State are also two programs trying to make a push to become validated as an annual power in the conference, a legacy program, if you will. For many years these programs sat underneath the iron-fisted rule of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. But with the failed Rich Rodriguez experiment in Ann Arbor, Mich., the firing of Jim Tressel amid Tattoo-gate and the Jerry Sandusky scandal that cost Joe Paterno his job, the power dynamic in the Big Ten has shifted enormously since 2008.
And with that shift, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio and Bielema were quick to make a push for the prime seats at the Big Ten table. But the question remained: Who would be at the head?
The likeness of these two teams and the shared goal to become the conference’s new power make their matchups more heated and meaningful. Add the history of the last two years, and you have the newest rivalry in the Big Ten.
It doesn’t matter if the Spartans come in Saturday with a sub-par record. Not only is Michigan State extremely talented and loaded on defense, this is the last time these two programs will meet each other on the field for several years, as the game becomes lost for the next few years due to the Big Ten’s divisional realignment.
So here’s my salute to you, Michigan State, and my thanks for providing some of the best games of my college career. I’m not quite sure if Wisconsin will miss you, but regardless, it’s been one hell of a ride.
Nick is a fifth-year senior majoring in history and English. Catch Nick on 91.7 WSUM’s “The Badger Herald Sports Hour” from 4-5 p.m. Sundays and “The Student Section” from 4-6 p.m. Mondays. Want to send Nick your thoughts on the column? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @nickkorger.