The Wisconsin football program had more than a case of the doldrums when Barry Alvarez took over as the head coach prior to the 1990 season. Badger football was in the dumpster and showing no signs of life. The team hadn’t been to a Rose Bowl since 1963, or any other kind of bowl since 1983. Alvarez would find mostly non-existent talent and a minimal recruiting base from which to build. Nonetheless, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator chipped away and improved the program.
After a 1-10 year to start off, they improved to 5-6 each of the following two seasons. The 1993 Wisconsin Badgers entered the season with the fan base, coaches and players all expecting a bowl game. They ended up getting a lot more than that.
Wisconsin’s offense in 1993 had established the general outline of what persists today—power football based on a strong offensive line. The line had future NFL players in center Cory Raymer and tackle Joe Panos, the latter of whom was also the heart and soul of the team.
There was a tough 1-2 punch in the backfield with Brent Moss and Terrell Fletcher, with Moss ultimately running for over 1,600 yards and winning the Big Ten MVP award.
At quarterback was future NFL offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who would complete close to 70 percent of his passes and be the ideal high-efficiency passer for a system like this.
After a season-opening win over Nevada, Wisconsin got a little bit of a test from SMU, but survived for a 24-16 road win that put the Badgers into the national rankings at #24. UW closed non-conference play with a win over Iowa State and then opened Big Ten action by beating what was then a pretty good Indiana program on the road, 27-15. The Hoosiers were going to bowl games under Bill Mallory more often than not at this point and would do so again in ’93. After beating IU in Bloomington, Panos asked the question that would become part of Badger lore —“Why not Wisconsin?”, he said to a reporter, when talking about the race for the Rose Bowl.
After a bye week, Wisconsin easily dispatched Northwestern and Purdue, scoring 95 points in the process and moving up to #15. At 6-0, they were bowl-eligible, though at the time it was easy to forget that the program had realistically clinched what was the season’s defining goal. It was time to start thinking about getting more.
Perhaps Wisconsin got ahead of themselves, looking at coming home games with Michigan and Ohio State on October 30 and November 6, because October 23 in Minnesota tripped them up. The Badgers created the textbook for how to gain 600 yards of offense against a bad team and still lose.
Bevell threw five interceptions. Kicker John Hall missed a couple makeable field goals. A fourth-and-inches inside the Minnesota ten-yard line was stopped, and so was the Badger undefeated season in a 28-21 loss. This game would live on in the annals of Hollywood lore, when footage was used for the old ABC series Coach, where actor Craig T. Nelson portrayed a head coach at fictitious Minnesota State University.
The Badgers still controlled their own destiny for the Rose Bowl, but the real question was whether they could handle Michigan, who had won or shared the league championship each of the previous five years, and Ohio State who was ranked third in the nation.
Against Michigan, Wisconsin led 6-3 late in the first half, when they launched an 80-yard touchdown drive that was capped by a 12-yard run from Fletcher. Moss got 128 yards and helped Wisconsin control the line of scrimmage. The Wolverines would close to 13-10 and get inside the Wisconsin thirty-yard line twice, but an interception and a fourth-down sack ended both bids.
The win was a clear signal that the Badgers were for real, but the game nearly had a tragic result. When the crowd stormed the field, there became problems at the fence, with students pressing against each other. Nearly seventy people ended up in the hospital, some in critical condition. Thankfully, everyone ultimately pulled through.
Now it was time for Ohio State, and in a circumstance quite unusual for the Madison of 1993, the ABC-TV crew of Keith Jackson and Bob Griese were on hand to call the game. It was a tight 7-7 affair in the second half, with Wisconsin shooting themselves in the foot with a couple of Bevell fumbles killing off drives. Finally, UW got the lead at 14-7 and with Ohio State pinned on their own 1-yard line and 4:43 left, the Badgers were poised to take control of the Rose Bowl race. Instead, the Buckeyes ripped off an astonishing 99-yard drive that took four plays and 46 seconds. Wisconsin worked their way back into position for a makeable last-play field goal, but it was blocked.
The 14-14 tie kept Ohio State in control of the Big Ten championship race, but Wisconsin was still alive. The Badgers needed to win their final two games and hope Ohio State lost just once. In the event of a co-championship where the head-to-head tiebreaker was negated by the tie game, the Big Ten would use what can be kindly called “the ineptitude rule”, wherein the team who had been away from Pasadena the longest would get the bid. Prior to Alvarez, Wisconsin had few rivals for ineptitude and would get the nod in that scenario.
On November 20, Michigan gave Wisconsin the help they needed. The Wolverines salvaged a disappointing four-loss season by hammered the Buckeyes 28-3. Wisconsin took the field in Illinois later that afternoon knowing they had the inside track to Pasadena and they played like it, beating up the Illini 35-10.
One more game remained. By rights, the season finale with Michigan State should have been in Camp Randall, in front of a crazed crowd cheering on a Rose Bowl push. But Wisconsin had agreed to move the game to Tokyo—it was part of an Alvarez idea to make sure the alumni got some type of trip, even if it wasn’t a bowl game. No one who follows this program closely, as I do, will ever accuse the former coach and current AD of lacking confidence. But this decision was oddly rooted in a little bit of timidity, since Wisconsin surely had to have some belief they could at least give a bowl trip—now a visit to Pasadena was jeopardized by playing an inferior opponent on a neutral site in an atmosphere where no one knew what to expect from players’ body clocks.
It turns out it didn’t matter. Wisconsin could have played this game anywhere—the offensive line was locked in. Moss ran for 147 yards, while Fletcher only needed 10 carries to get 112 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown dash that gave the Badgers a 17-7 second quarter lead and sent them on their way to a 41-20 win. Perhaps it was appropriate to clinch the Rose Bowl in Tokyo, because few programs had traveled as far as Wisconsin’s had to get a major bowl spot, be it figurative or literal.
The Rose Bowl opponent would be UCLA. The Bruins had won this game three times from 1982-85, but the ’93 game was the first time they’d been back—even with Troy Aikman at quarterback in the late 1980s, UCLA hadn’t gone to Pasadena. After an 0-2 start to this season, no one expected any different, but UCLA closed on an 8-1-1 run that secured a share of the Pac-10 title and the bid. As the more recognized program and playing on their homefield, they were expected to win.
UCLA made its living through the air, while Wisconsin pounded on the ground. Moss scored two first-half touchdowns, en route to 158 yards and ultimately game MVP honors. UCLA got 14 catches and 176 yards receiving from J.J. Stokes, both Rose Bowl records, but trailed 14-10 early in the fourth quarter. Bevell then made the unlikeliest run of his career, taking off and going scrambling 21 yards for a touchdown.
The Bruins were able to answer with a touchdown, but missed the two-point conversion, preventing them from closing to three. A final UCLA drive ran out of clock just inside the Wisconsin 40 and the Cinderella story from the Midwest had not only reached the Rose Bowl, but won it.
It would have taken a bold prognosticator to predict what Wisconsin would build off of that win. They would win two more Rose Bowls under Alvarez in 1998-99 and go to three more under his successor Bret Bielama from 2010-12. Growing up in Wisconsin through the late 1970s and 1980s, it still seems incomprehensible to me that I’ve seen the Badgers play in six Rose Bowls. But they have, and it all started in 1993.