MADISON, Wis. — It is no stretch to suggest the electricity coursing through Camp Randall Stadium the last time Nebraska came to town was a phenomenon that has not been matched since. Given the stakes of that night — a nationally televised primetime game with ESPN’s College Gameday on site, Nebraska’s inaugural Big Ten game and a chance for Russell Wilson and Montee Ball to capture the country’s attention on an undefeated team — the atmosphere reflected the game’s importance.
Wisconsin cruised to a 48-17 victory, and the student section remained full into the final minutes, as Badgers faithful reveled by singing "Buttercup" well past the tune had ended on the loudspeakers.
"That was some charge now," Badgers safety Michael Caputo recalled. "There was some energy. . . . I just felt something different about that game."
Three years have passed, and Nebraska has not returned to Madison thanks to the conference’s scheduling quirks. But that will all change Saturday, when No. 22 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1) plays host to No. 11 Nebraska (8-1, 4-1) at 2:30 p.m. CT in a game that essentially serves as an elimination for the loser in the Big Ten West race.
It also is perhaps the most important game at Camp Randall since the teams last met there on Oct. 1, 2011.
"Just talking with some of the guys right after the Purdue win, we were focusing on Nebraska, and it’s definitely going to be a big game," Badgers linebacker Derek Landisch said. "We’re excited to play in front of our home fans. I think from here on out, it’s like a one-game playoff, one-week playoff. We’re just trying to go 1-0 each week."
Wisconsin has played 22 games at Camp Randall Stadium in between Nebraska’s visits, and other nationally ranked opponents or quality conference foes have created some buzz.
In 2012, Michigan State squeaked out an overtime victory, but that Spartans team entered with a losing conference record. Three weeks later, undefeated and sixth-ranked Ohio State again won in overtime. But the Buckeyes were ineligible for postseason play, and the outcome had no bearing on Wisconsin’s ultimate appearance in the Big Ten championship.
In 2013, Wisconsin played a Northwestern team ranked 19th in the country and pounded the Wildcats 35-6. But Northwestern lost seven consecutive conference games, and Wisconsin essentially was out of the Big Ten title picture anyway following a September loss to Ohio State.
Only once since the 2011 Wisconsin-Nebraska game have two ranked teams played at Camp Randall Stadium. That took place in the 2011 regular-season finale, when No. 15 Wisconsin pummeled No. 19 Penn State 45-7 to earn a spot in the Big Ten championship game.
All of this brings us to Saturday’s game, which once again features two nationally ranked teams.
"It’s a lot on the line," said Badgers running back Melvin Gordon, a Heisman Trophy candidate. "When we had Michigan State and some teams like that here, I kind of did reverses and things like that, but I never really got the ball. I was kind of just like a phony guy. I’m kind of the guy now and I do think this is probably one of the biggest games I’ve played, especially as a starter at the Camp."
Wisconsin tight end Sam Arneson suggested Nebraska was the favorite to win the Big Ten West, which only enhanced the game’s significance — though his statement ignored the fact the Badgers are listed as six-point favorites.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen, meanwhile, wasn’t willing to discuss the possibility of one game holding more significance than any other.
"I think it’s all hard to say, and I hate to get into that," Andersen said. "Everybody wants to talk about big games. It’s this and it’s that. We’re going to approach it exactly the same. The reason I say that is because a week from now, we’re going to be sitting here and then we’re going to say that’s a big game. Or two or three weeks ago when we were getting ready to play, how big was that game?
"We’re going to prepare the same. And as a coach, I think it’s important to allow the kids to prepare exactly the same and put them in a position. If it gets built up as too big or it gets built up not good enough, then I don’t think it’s good for the kids and quite frankly I don’t think it’s good for the coaches. We’re just going to prepare how we always prepare."
If Wisconsin wins, two more important games against Iowa and Minnesota to close the regular season will loom. But for now, all the focus is on Nebraska’s return to Camp Randall Stadium for the first time since that raucous night in 2011.
"It’s always been a big game," Caputo said. "This is one of the more significant ones because this determines whether or not we go further with our season or we come up short. . . .
"It’s almost like a rivalry now that Nebraska and Wisconsin are facing each other every year in the Big Ten. The energies match each other each year. This year will definitely I think be equivalent to that in 2011."