The recent history of Wisconsin sports can be easily summed up in a few numbers. Simply uttering the phrases “408” or “38-1” is enough to elicit visceral responses from Badgers fans anywhere. Yet there is one numerical phrase equally seared into the memory of (as ESPN announcer Rod Gilmore repeatedly calls them) Bucky Badger fans. The ignominy of it still reverberates through the annals: 59-0.
Even for those who were not students during the 2014 college football season, the mere mention of it on the feeds of Twitter trolls and College Gameday signs is enough to make one cringe. Losing to a conference opponent by 59, especially in the championship game, is not something that is easy to forget, thanks to Ohio State fans. Nor should it be.
Yet to some, that game was a watershed moment. While the humiliation of losing by such a wide margin is difficult to shake, one can also point to it as the beginning of the remarkable run of success the Badgers are currently enjoying. It was the death knell for Gary Andersen’s ill-fated tenure as Wisconsin’s head coach, opening the door for a lovable yet unostentatious alum to walk right through it.
Now, with the Badgers on the brink of glory and a shot at a national championship, it only makes sense that the one obstacle standing in their way is the exact school that wreaked so much havoc on UW’s 2014 season (and self-esteem). Most of the players are different, yet it will be seen as an opportunity to exact revenge, to exorcise the ghosts that have been skulking around Camp Randall for three years.
This year’s Ohio State team appears more beatable. Its calamitous defeat to Iowa and humiliation at the hands of Oklahoma exposed various flaws, and it had a difficult time putting away a highly fallible Michigan team. Its injuries are racking up, most notably the bizarre incident between J.T. Barrett and a photographer prior to Saturday’s game (which shall hereafter be referred to as the Immaculate Collision). While UW fans who remember 2014’s Big Ten Championship game will likely take little solace when considering the prospect of facing an Ohio State backup quarterback, lightning never strikes the same place twice (am I doing a good job of convincing you/myself?).
In all likelihood, Wisconsin will still have to play its very best game to come out victorious. One can only hope Paul Chryst has some more tricks up his sleeve (here’s a free suggestion: a fake handoff to Jonathan Taylor, then a fake pitch to Jonathan Taylor, followed by a handoff to Kendrick Pryor, who then hands it off to Michael Dieter, who throws it long to Austin Ramesh. That brilliant idea is on the house!). Wisconsin veterans are hungry for redemption after last year’s collapse (and the few holdovers from 2014 will be even hungrier), and will need to give it their all to stand a chance against a team that is, in many respects, more physically talented.
The last 25 years of success notwithstanding, the general consensus on Wisconsin is that they still have not been able to make the leap to the next level. This is a theory that permeates the national dialogue whether it’s justifiable or not. This weekend is the chance to soundly refute that notion once and for all. It’s only right that the one team standing in the way is the same one that inflicted so much pain three years ago. But maybe, if the stars align, things will go differently this time. And maybe “59-0” will finally become a distant memory, supplanted by a far happier one, once and for all.