"When you think you've seen it all," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said immediately after Saturday's stunning 4-point win over Minnesota, "you haven't seen it all." And Alvarez should know. In his 16 seasons at the helm of the Good Ship Badger, Alvarez has witnessed more than his share of miracle victories.
Was Saturday's the best of all? It would be difficult to argue against it. But before you make up your mind, let's look at the most improbable comebacks by Wisconsin under Alvarez, listed here from oldest to most recent.
Late Fumble Haunts Wildcats (10.4.97): Down 25-23 at Evanston's Ryan Field, it was all but over for UW as Gary Barnett's Northwestern team forged inside the Badgers 5 with less than 90 seconds remaining. But instead of taking a knee and running out the clock, Barnett elected to run the ball, and the Badgers recovered a fumble at their own 4 with 1:16 to play. Seventy seconds later, Matt Davenport drilled a 48-yard field goal, his second game-winning kick in as many weeks. The Badgers improved to 5-1, 2-0 in the Big 10; they finished 8-5, 4-4.
42 Unanswered in Columbus (10.2.99): The Badgers were staring at a third consecutive loss and an 0-2 record in Big 10 play when Ohio State jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first half at Columbus. Making the challenge even more daunting was the fact that it was redshirt freshman Brooks Bollinger's first start at quarterback for UW. The Badgers cut the lead to 17-6 at halftime and cashed in another quick score after OSU fumbled the second-half kickoff to get within five. They never looked back, scoring 30 more points in a rout of the Buckeyes. The Badgers didn't lose another game, culminating the year with a 17-9 Rose Bowl victory over Stanford.
Turning Back the Bearcats (9.16.00): After falling to the Bearcats in 1999, a second straight loss to Cincinnati seemed like a distinct possibility as UW trailed 19-15 with 2:15 remaining in Madison. With no timeouts remaining, Bollinger led the Badgers 60 yards and finished the drive himself to give the Badgers a 22-19 lead with just 23 seconds left. Cincy managed to tie it in regulation and kicked another field goal in overtime to take the lead, but Eddie Faulkner's 16-yard scamper gave UW a 28-25 win, allowing the Badgers to retain their Top 10 status for another week (they dropped from 4th to 7th, though). They eventually finished the regular season a disappointing 8-4.
Another Rally at Ohio State (10.13.01): After getting hammered at home by lowly Indiana, 63-32, the week prior, the Badgers again fell behind at Ohio State, 17-0. Incredibly, they overcame the same deficit for the second straight time in Columbus. As with Saturday's game in Minneapolis, this one turned on a failed punt. Down 17-0 just before half, OSU botched a punt snap and turned the ball over at the UW 23. Anthony Davis burst in from there to make it a 10-point game at halftime. The Badgers defense stiffened in the second half, and little-remembered Mark Neuser kicked a 33-yard field goal with just more than 2 minutes left to make it 20-17. The Badgers then took the ball away on downs to improve to 2-1 in conference play. Unfortunately, UW lost four of its last five games to finish 5-7, Alvarez's first losing season since 1995.
Brooks' Last Stand at the Alamo (12.28.02): After a ho-hum 7-6 regular season and a 2-6 finish in the Big 10, the Badgers "earned" an Alamo Bowl bid against the dangerous Colorado Buffaloes, featuring current NFL running back Chris Brown. When Bollinger's fourth-down pass fell incomplete with 3:30 remaining and the Badgers down 28-21, it appeared to be over. But UW got the ball back at its own 20 with 2:05 left and quickly converted a 4th-and-18 play to extend the drive. On 3rd and 10 two plays later, freshman Jonathan Orr dropped a perfect pass inside the Buffs 10, appearing to doom UW's chances. But Bollinger threw a gutsy pass to Darrin Charles that the lanky receiver hauled in at the CU 1-yard line, setting up a QB sneak and overtime moments later. The Badgers forced a missed field goal before Mike Allen cashed in a 37-yarder to end Bollinger's career on an extreme high note.
Orton's Folly (10.16.04): Perhaps no comeback was bigger or more stunning than last year's triumph over No. 5 Purdue under the lights in West Lafayette. Both teams were undefeated. Both teams had Rose Bowl -- and even national title -- hopes. But when Heisman hopeful Kyle Orton scrambled in for a score with 8 minutes left, Purdue was ahead 17-7 and UW's hopes were flickering. As with this weekend in Minneapolis, QB John Stocco then engineered a key touchdown drive to climb within three. With 2:49 left, Orton scrambled to his right on 3rd and 3 from his own 37. As he crossed the first down marker, he was jolted and sent tumbling by Robert Brooks and Scott Starks. Before Orton hit the ground, he had lost the football. Starks scrambled to his feet, snatched up the pigskin and raced 40 yards down the sideline for the go-ahead score. A missed extra point gave the Boilers one last chance, but their last gasp field goal attempt missed the mark. UW had claimed the most shocking comeback victory of the Alvarez era.
Perhaps, that is, until this weekend's win in Minneapolis. Where the win over the Gophers ultimately ranks will depend on what Wisconsin does over the next two months. For now, though, Alvarez was certainly right -- when it comes to Badger football, you've never quite seen everything.
Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.
Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.