It was prior to the Ohio State game when former University of Wisconsin offensive lineman Joe Panos surprised the members of this season's offensive line and met with them in the weight room.

Panos' message was blunt and to the point: A lot of people were calling this one of the best offensive lines in UW history. It was time to prove it.

"I kind of challenged them," Panos said. "‘You want to be thought of as the best line? Listen, I'm very, very proud of my line. It's tough for me to say this, but you guys do what you're supposed to do, what you have a chance to do and I'll sit there and tell you guys you're just as good as us.

" ‘I have no problem doing that. I hope I can do that.' "

Now, with the fourth-ranked Badgers preparing to play No. 3 Texas Christian in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, only one thing remains for this offensive line to take its place with the best in UW history.

"Unless they win a Rose Bowl, you can't put them in the same breath," Panos said.

That was the standard set by Panos and his line mates during the 1993 season, later surpassed by Chris McIntosh and his line mates, who won back-to-back Rose Bowls after the 1998 and '99 seasons.

Those offensive lines are regarded as the three best in school history and will be joined by this year's line — provided it can finish the job.

"(The Rose Bowl) will be the statement game, for sure," junior right guard Kevin Zeitler said. "We're fully aware of that."

Good to great

It's probably just a coincidence, but UW's line went from consistently good to dominating with the 31-18 win over then-No. 1 Ohio State at Camp Randall Stadium on Oct. 16.

"(Panos) surprised us before Ohio State in the weight room, a nice O-line chat," Zeitler said. "He gave us a nice talk, ‘Just go out and dominate.'"

That's what the line has done ever since.

The Badgers scored 31 points in back-to-back wins over two of the toughest defenses it has faced to this point — Ohio State and Iowa — then steamrolled everyone on the schedule, including 83 points against Indiana and 70 against Northwestern.

"I guess one of the things I admire most about this line is how they've really jelled as a unit as the year went on, especially given, I don't want to say a rocky start, but I think they would admit, they weren't hitting on all cylinders the first part of the season,'' McIntosh said.

"It would have been easy to be frustrated by that but they found ways to win games. That Ohio State game, they out-physicaled that defense, just beat them up. As a spectator, it really seems like that's when everything started clicking. As an offensive lineman alum, it was really enjoyable to watch them put a physical pounding on a really talented defense."

Links on a chain

The Ohio State game reminded McIntosh of the way the 1998 and '99 lines manhandled opponents. McIntosh was the unquestioned leader and starting left tackle on both lines as a junior and senior.

Like Panos, McIntosh is a proud man who regards his line as the best. McIntosh doesn't differentiate between the '98 and '99 lines, since the only change was at right tackle. Aaron Gibson was the right tackle in '98 and a finalist for the Outland Trophy. Former walk-on Mark Tauscher took over as the right tackle in '99 and is now in his 11th year with the Green Bay Packers.

Both lines also featured Bill Ferrario at left guard, Casey Rabach at center and Dave Costa at right guard.

Former UW coach Barry Alvarez has called the 1998 line his best because Gibson could dominate.

"There were some things we could do with Gibby and there were things we could do with Tausch," McIntosh said. "Gibby had the ability, when everything was clicking, to wipe off the whole (left) side of the (defensive) line. From an offensive lineman's perspective, there was big-play potential there.

"Tausch was really sound on pass protection — not that we threw the ball a lot. Tausch is a smart player. He wasn't as athletically gifted as Gibby, so he made up for it in other ways. He was more of a student of the game."

The '99 offense had better statistics, averaging 275.4 rushing yards per game, the second most in school history behind the 1974 team (287.5), 417.2 total yards and 34.1 points. The '98 offense averaged 215.9 rushing yards, 329.5 total yards and 31.8 points.

But if statistics are considered, the 1993 team set a school record for yards, averaging 455.2 per game, while averaging 250.8 rushing yards and 29.5 points. That line featured Mike Verstegen at left tackle, current UW tight ends coach Joe Rudolph at left guard, Cory Raymer at center, Steve Stark at right guard and Panos at right tackle.

"It was five links on one chain," Panos said. "We all played on the same level, we were all in sync with one another.

"We played with a chip on our shoulders. We weren't All-Americans. We weren't highly recruited. We were tough guys, we were self-made guys. If you were backed in a corner, you want them with you, because they'll find a way out of it. That was probably our strength."

1993 set foundation

The 1993 line deserves credit for re-establishing the tradition of offensive linemen at the school. The Badgers had plenty of great linemen and good lines before then, but that group helped bring the pride back.

McIntosh, from Pewaukee, grew up in the state and had little interest in the Badgers before the 1993 team went to the Rose Bowl.

"Growing up in the late '80s, there wasn't a whole lot to be excited about at Wisconsin," McIntosh said. "They really sparked a lot of interest, as far as offensive linemen go, with a lot of the in-state kids.

"They deserve a lot of credit, I don't know if I'd say establishing a tradition of great linemen - certainly, Paul Gruber would disagree with that - but re-establishing a tradition and a pride of being an offensive lineman here."

If the 1993 line returned the pride, the '98 and '99 lines put linemen at the forefront, blocking for Ron Dayne.

"Our work is usually best done when you're not hearing our names," Tauscher said. "Usually, when you hear an offensive lineman's name it's for something negative. (Dayne) gave us credit. He was a very good teammate, he would give credit where credit was due.

"We all knew he was a great talent, but we knew we had to do our jobs to give him a chance to showcase it."

The success of the '98 and '99 lines helped attract top talents like Joe Thomas, now an All-Pro left tackle for the Cleveland Browns, and Gabe Carimi, the current left tackle who joined Thomas as the only two Outland winners in school history.

"It has kind of turned into this self-fulfilling prophecy of offensive linemen," McIntosh said. "The better they do, the more talent they attract, the better they do."

Lead by example

One thing all of the Rose Bowl lines have in common is great leadership. That was another tradition started by Panos and passed on through McIntosh. They were two of the top leaders in the Alvarez Era.

"You look at every good team we've had, you'll see a leader on the offensive line," Panos said.

This year's team qualifies with Carimi and left guard John Moffitt.

"If you ask me, those two guys on the left side, they're the spark plugs of the team," Panos said. "Moffitt is the emotional leader, the one people listen to."

One thing the current line has going for it is a level of athleticism past Rose Bowl lines probably couldn't match.

"It has been a phenomenal season to watch," McIntosh said. "It's with a lot of pride that I've been able to watch this team grow and evolve throughout the season. A lot of the stuff is the same stuff we did. At the same time, they've got an athleticism we didn't have that allows them to do some things we couldn't."

No one will ever convince Panos his line wasn't the best.

"There's arguments for the '98 and '99 lines, they've all got a valid case," Panos said. "Four of the five starters that played on my line ended up playing in the NFL. The '98 and '99 lines had a bunch of guys that played in the NFL.

"It's subjective. ... At the end of the day, it was five guys who are very good at what they did and have Rose Bowl rings to prove it."

If the current line gets its Rose Bowl rings, then it will certainly be welcomed into the discussion.

"Put it this way, if Panos and myself and Moffitt and Carimi are sitting around having a beer 10 years from now," McIntosh said, "and we're talking about who had the best offensive line, having the tag line of being on a Rose Bowl-winning team would be an easy litmus test."

Otherwise, Carimi and Moffitt will have to pay for the beer.

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