The last time the Badgers had an experienced offensive line and a strong running back, they won a Rose Bowl. That was New Year's Day of 2000, also the last time the Badgers played out the season with an untested quarterback, then in the form of redshirt freshman Brooks Bollinger.
Entering the 2004 season, the senior class, all 20 fourth- and fifth-year students alike, can feel the pressure as they try one last time for a return to Pasadena. The last time the Badgers played in a BCS bowl, the current upperclassmen were in high school, some preparing to start careers at Wisconsin. The pressure, it seems, has increased because the ingredients from the 1999 Wisconsin squad are similar to that of the 2004 Badgers, making comparisons easy to make, at least from an offensive standpoint.
Wisconsin boasts a solid offensive line that returns its entire starting cast. The guys up front hope to showcase healthy senior tailback Anthony Davis, just as the line five years ago highlighted Ron Dayne.
"It's hard to compare teams. I know the consistent things with our good teams were we had a good offensive line and a great running back," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "We had that in all three of our championship teams. I think we have that in this team. We had one of our teams a great defensive team. I think we have a chance to be a solid defense. I don't know, it will be interesting to see how far this team goes defensively. The one constant was great offensive line and running back. I believe we have that with this team."
The team even has the untested quarterback in redshirt sophomore John Stocco, who is one of six new starting quarterbacks in the Big Ten this season. Alvarez, along with several other coaches, pointed out that an untested quarterback is not the equivalent of a bad quarterback. Alvarez cited the importance of having multiple options at the key position, ensuring a suitable backup for the signal caller. Case in point: Bollinger, who won the Rose Bowl as a redshirt freshman, replaced Scott Kavanagh early in the conference season and won eight straight games to take the Badgers to Pasadena.
"I think back to the last year we won a championship, we won it with a first-year (quarterback)," Alvarez said. "We made a change and went to a first-year redshirt freshman quarterback and won eight straight ball games and the Rose Bowl game. So, I think with someone new, you want to make sure that he doesn't lose games for you.
John Stocco will not be the only one to feel the heat from the get-go. Since their last Rose Bowl win the Badgers have gone 29-23. They are 20-19 the past three years, in which they have not finished higher than seventh in league play, and this year's senior class wants to go out with a bang. They are craving another Rose Bowl title and know this is their last shot at dominating the conference.
"I think all of us are on the same page," Davis said. "Since we've been here, every year has just been—we've settled, we've settled for making it to a bowl game. We don't want this year to be like that. We want this year to be a special year. It's our last time playing together; we're all really tight and good friends. We want this to be a memorable season."
Athletes gain recognition throughout their college careers but a successful senior campaign is especially important in establishing a legacy to be remembered for years to come. Maybe it is the poetic nature of the senior making the great last play in his last game or the senior class that comes together to win a championship. Or maybe seniors are expected to do great things as a tribute to the years of hard work and accomplishments. Or maybe it is the various superlatives attached with the word "senior": leadership, domination, perseverance, experience. These athletes know they must produce a successful senior campaign in order to be remembered the way they would like to be.
"You definitely get remembered by what you do as a senior," senior free safety Jim Leonhard said. "You just have lots of guys who have already proven themselves but when you're coming back for the reunions and things like that, they're not talking about your sophomore year and your freshman year. It's going to be about what you did as a senior."
Raising the bar
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