This weekend, the Badgers, who have gone a meager 1-6 since their 5-0 start, will be squaring off against an upstart Minnesota team in what has panned out to be the biggest game of UW’s season.
A victory over the Golden Gophers (7-4, 3-4) this Saturday would not only extend Wisconsin’s season and mark the return of the coveted Paul Bunyan axe, it would also make for a fitting Camp Randall farewell for the last remaining class of Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl era.
Although Brooks Bollinger and this year’s senior class might not have ended their storybook careers as they may have liked, head coach Barry Alvarez and the other members of the Badger coaching staff understand what this group has meant to the program.
“Even though it’s a very small class, I think they’ve given us as much leadership as they possibly can,” said Alvarez. “They understand the program, and I think they’ve tried to talk about what the program is all about to our younger players.”
Brooks Bollinger has been playing this leadership role for the coaching staff since his freshman year. Bollinger, a four-year starter, became the school’s all-time winningest quarterback after he led UW to a 42-24 victory over Michigan State earlier this season.
When asked about what his final game in Camp Randall was going to be like, Bollinger touched on what the fans have meant to him over the course of his Badger tenure.
“It’s an exciting day … we have so much on the line for this football team and this program. It’s going to be sad to be done playing here,” Bollinger said. “The fans here have been great.
“Sometimes things don’t go as well as you’d like, and they let you know a little bit, but that’s the way fans are … but they’ve been great, and overall, it’s been nothing but a great experience for me to play in front of them as many times as I have.”
Seniors B.J. Tucker and Al Johnson shared similar sentiments when asked about their final collegiate home game. Both also realize the importance of this week’s border-rival matchup.
“It feels like just yesterday I was starting in my first game. I don’t think it’s really going to hit me until the game is over or a couple of weeks down the road,” Tucker said. “Really, I’m just looking to win and get that axe back and hopefully get an extra game to play for.”
“We’re playing for an awful lot … a win in my last game in Camp Randall and for all the seniors would be a great experience,” added Johnson.
Also playing in his last game at Camp Randall will be Al Johnson’s cousin, Ben Johnson. Like Al, Ben will likely be playing for an NFL team somewhere at this time next year. The fame and money that lie in his future, however, has not clouded Johnson’s resolve to win this weekend’s game and seal up his class’s legacy as a group of guys that refused to quit.
“We (the seniors) would just like to be remembered as a team that didn’t give up, a team that fought through hard times; we fought through all the Shoe Box stuff, fought through from going to the top to being at the bottom,” said Ben Johnson. “We want to be the class known as the fighters, a class that fought through the hard times.”
The Badgers will also be losing offensive lineman Jason Jowers to graduation. Jowers, a towering 6-foot-6 right tackle out of Liberty, Ill., has been a model of consistency throughout his career, starting in every game since earning the starting nod in his junior year and missing just nine snaps all of last season.
When looking back at his playing days, Jowers will remember how the Badger faithful stuck by the team through the good times as well as the bad.
“There are so many memories that I have … even from when I was just redshirted and we made it to our first Rose Bowl, how excited the town was and seeing the fans jumping around. The same thing with Ron breaking the record in the last game of the ’99 season, just those towels … I remember that,” said a nostalgic Jowers.
“And then down to the bad points where we’ve struggled, but the fans have still stuck with us. It’s just a great experience playing here, and it’s something that I’ll always remember … I couldn’t imagine a better place and better fans.”
Rounding out this year’s graduating class are starting defensive end Jake Sprague and reserve players Russ Kuhns, David Braun and Ryan Simmons. Although the three senior reserves have seen limited playing time in their respective careers, their influence in practice and on the sidelines will be sorely missed next season.
“Guys like that who haven’t maybe had the opportunity because they were walk-ons when they came in, and they still fought themselves into scholarships, guys like Dave Braun who came in as a walk-on from Madison and just came to play … those guys have meant just as much as any starter who has been around for four or five years,” Jowers said.
Whether or not they’re able to retrieve the infamous axe this weekend, this year’s senior class will not soon be forgotten. Brooks Bollinger, the Johnson boys and the rest of this group have had a hand in a Big Ten championship, back-to-back victories against UCLA in the Rose Bowl and Sun Bowl and have set a winning precedent for future generations in the UW football program.
A collection of talent and leadership like this doesn’t come around very often, and their accomplishments should be treasured, regardless of what transpires Saturday.