We continue to reflect and bask in recent Badger football glory. The list of the top five Badger football teams in our lifetime (1997-2019) continues with the reveals of third and second place picks. To recap, the 2019 season took home fifth place on our list, while the 1999 Badgers took home fourth place.
I would like to preface this choice by saying the only barrier keeping the 2011 team from a top spot on this list were back-to-back last-second, heartbreaking road losses to Michigan State University and Ohio State University after a 6-0 start to the season for the Badgers. The Michigan State loss is still controversial to this day.
Replay reviews typically have to show indisputable evidence for a call to be overturned. When Michigan State’s Keith Nicol caught Kirk Cousins’ deflected Hail Mary on the goal line as time expired in a 31-31 game, nothing in the review provided clear evidence for the call to be reversed to a game-winning score.
The next week, with under a minute to go and a 29-26 Badger lead, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller scrambled to the right sideline and heaved a Hail Mary from midfield to connect with Devin Smith and defeat the Badgers. These would be the only two losses the Badgers would suffer until falling to the University of Oregon in a Rose Bowl shootout.
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If you haven’t yet guessed, 2011 was the Russell Wilson year. After transferring from North Carolina State University, Wilson only spent one year with the Badgers but remains the best Badger quarterback in our lifetime and one of the school’s best ever.
Wilson completed passes at an unprecedented 72% rate, and at the time, broke the FBS record for passer efficiency rating (191.4). Wilson tossed 33 scores, piling up 3000 yards through the air. He added six touchdowns and 340 yards on the ground while leading the Badgers to their second straight conference title.
Of course, Wilson wasn’t alone. Though he undoubtedly made the players around him better, there is no denying how talented this group was. Russell Wilson wasn’t the Badgers Heisman candidate after all, it was running back Montee Ball.
Ball’s junior year would go down as his best season and in large part is the reason he would eventually break the FBS record for career rushing touchdowns with 77. In 2011, Ball rushed for just under 2,000 yards and a whopping 39 touchdowns, while averaging a career-high 6.3 yards per carry.
Ball somehow wasn’t alone in the backfield. In fact, the 2011 backfield was the most talented group of running backs the Badgers have ever had at once, with three future pros. James White tacked on 700 yards and six touchdowns in his sophomore campaign while Melvin Gordon got his first Badger touches as a freshman.
Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis packed a deadly one-two punch through the air. The pair combined for just under 2,000 yards receiving and 18 touchdowns.
Protected by a stout offensive line led by Rickey Wagner, all of these individual accomplishments on offense created the Badgers highest scoring single-season offense of all time. This team put up 44 points per game. The Badgers haven’t been able to replicate a dynamic offense such as this one since.
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Stud linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland led the Badger defense, and they combined for almost 300 tackles, 28 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and four interceptions. The defense gave up just 19 points per game, creating a wide point differential in conjunction with the offense.
The 2011 Badgers simple rating score, provided by Sports Reference, is 15.89, the fourth highest score for a Badgers team in our lifetime.
With dominant victories over #8 Nebraska and #20 Penn State, the Badgers eventually got their revenge on Michigan State in an instant classic Big Ten Championship game, but it’s ultimately a what could have been season for this 11-win team. While Wilson and Ball’s incredible seasons may be clear in the memories of lifelong Badger fans, it’s lost on many college football fans around the country. And that’s the difference between a first or second place finish on this list.
Regardless of what this team accomplished, this might’ve been the most memorable team in years with all their star power. And in 2011, many of us current students were at the peak of our young fandom. Don’t let the few heartbreaking losses define all that 2011 was. This team put the Badgers on the map as a legitimate national champion contender.
Not a whole lot separates the 1999 team we talked about last week from the 1998 team in terms of roster construction. The main difference is Alvarez’ 98 team was just a little more dominant, winning one more game while playing a tougher slate of opponents.
Similar to the output of freshman Brooks Bollinger in 1999, senior quarterback Mike Samuel served as a game manager and a running quarterback in 1998. Samuel eclipsed a mere 1,000 yards through the air and just six touchdown tosses.
While Samuel’s passing stats may not wow you, his senior year was a massive step up from what he achieved in his junior season. In 1997, Samuel had major issues with ball security, coughing up 13 interceptions in comparison to just eight touchdowns. In 1998, he only threw four interceptions.
With his legs, however, he was always reliable. Samuel ran for 380 yards and 10 touchdowns in 1998.
Samuel’s ground game aided Ron Dayne in his junior year, of course. Dayne carried the rock 295 times for 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns. Dayne’s stats in 1998 are nearly identical to the numbers he put up in 1997, yet the Badgers won three more games and a Rose Bowl in 1998.
With a ground-and-pound playstyle through Dayne, you would think the Badgers success would largely be determined by his success, but evidently, play isn’t necessarily what factored into their improved win total. It was the improved play by Samuel, in addition to major improvements from the defense.
In 1997, Kevin Cosgrove was in his third season as defensive coordinator for the Badgers. His defense surrendered 23.5 points per game, an average mark relative to the rest of the country.
The defense actually somehow gave up more per game than the Badgers scored per game (22.4) in a season where they won eight games. In 1998, the Badgers put up 31.8 points per game and Cosgrove’s defense gave up just 11.9 points per game, good for the best scoring defense in the country.
The stout defense was led by consensus All-American, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, defensive end Tom Burke. Burke was a sack machine, bringing down the opposing quarterback 22 times in 1998, a single-season school record. Nobody has come close to sniffing that record. Burke added 31 tackles for loss. He truly had one of the most dominant seasons in college football history.
Burke’s work on the front lines was supported by Jamar Fletcher’s work as a ballhawk in the secondary, snagging seven interceptions before he would do that in each of the next two seasons. Fletcher shares a Wisconsin record for career interceptions (21).
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Badgers sudden dominance in 1998, something that cannot be determined on the stat sheet, is their established pace-of-play, controlling the tempo in their contests.
With Samuel and Dayne constantly running it down their opponents throats between the tackles and Tom Burke leading a suffocating defense, the Badgers rarely found themselves in a deficit.
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After winning the first four games of the season by a margin of 171-28, the Badgers escaped victorious in back-to-back midseason scares from Indiana and Purdue. Wisconsin then responded to their close contests with blowout wins over Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.
Ranked eighth in the country (9-0) going into fifteenth ranked Michigan, the Badgers suffered their one and only loss of the season at The Big House, 27-10.
The loss stung, but the Badgers remained in control of their Rose Bowl destiny. When it mattered most, the Badgers proved they could win a big game against a big team. The Badgers closed the regular season with a dominant 24-3 win over ranked Penn State.
With few marquee wins heading into the Rose Bowl, CBS analyst infamously said the 1998 Badgers team was the worst team he could remember playing in a Rose Bowl when previewed the game. Famous last words.
The Badgers used this added motivation to upset a powerhouse UCLA Bruins team, 38-31. Ron Dayne had a day, rushing for a season-high 246 yards and four scores on his way to being named Rose Bowl MVP. He even played on a sore shoulder.
The Badgers proved their worth and the Big Ten’s worth that year in a big way with their Rose Bowl victory. The second Badgers Rose Bowl over UCLA in the 1990’s.
The 1998 Badgers are credited with an SRS score of 16.45, the third highest score for a Badgers team in our lifetime. But the main reason this Badgers team is second on this list is because of what the Badgers built for the 1999 season and beyond. The Badgers would end the 90’s with three Rose Bowl victories, none more meaningful than the one that capped off their 1998 season.
With that, we’re down to our pick for the top prize. Stay tuned for our pick for the top spot, in addition to some honorable mentions, next week.