Confirmation that the Gophers football program had turned a significant corner came on Nov. 24, 2018, when Minnesota went into Madison and beat the Badgers by 22 points to end Wisconsin’s 14-year hold on Paul Bunyan’s Axe. It was the Gophers’ first victory in Camp Randall Stadium since 1994.
Confirmation that Wisconsin players might be missing the point of Saturday’s rematch at TCF Bank Stadium — a game that will decide the winner of the Big Ten West title — came this week as the Badgers talked about getting the Axe back.
“We had (the Axe) forever and they finally get it, and they get to parade around the state with it,” Badgers linebacker Mike Maskalunas said via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We definitely noticed that.”
If this is what Maskalunas and the Badgers are going to use as motivation there is a good chance they won’t be returning to Madison with the Axe.
The Badgers’ biggest mistake would be to believe that last season’s loss was a blip on the radar of the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry and that they continue to have any claim on the Axe as their own. If the Badgers believe they remain the big brother who can take what it wants when it wants they are wrong.
The expectation is that Saturday’s game is going to be a heavyweight fight just as the Gophers exchanged punches with Penn State in a down-to-the-wire 31-26 victory three weeks ago at TCF Bank Stadium. For all that coach P.J. Fleck’s high-tempo approach might annoy some, especially those from the opposing side, to focus on that ignores the fact that Fleck has done an outstanding job when it comes to schemes and developing and recruiting talent.
That is a reason Gophers fans can again keep a straight face when they refer to Minnesota-Wisconsin games being a rivalry. When your team has lost 14 in a row in the series, that is no longer a rivalry, it’s an embarrassment and that’s a reality the Gophers faced for many years.
The Gophers (10-1) are ahead of the Badgers (9-2) in the College Football Playoff rankings, with Minnesota holding the eighth spot and Wisconsin at 12th. Unless the folks responsible for the CFP rankings do something very bizarre in the coming weeks, it appears that Saturday’s game will decide whether the Badgers or Gophers end up in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. That’s being realistic, since both would be extreme long shots to beat top-ranked Ohio State (11-0) in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 7.
The Badgers once were a laughingstock of a football program but Barry Alvarez brought an end to that in the early 1990s and, since 1993, Wisconsin has been to six Rose Bowls and 24 bowl games. The Gophers have been to no Rose Bowls and 15 bowl games in the same 26-year period. The last time the Gophers advanced to Pasadena was in the 1961 season under Murray Warmath.
The Gophers have put themselves in a position to play their biggest game in 50-plus years by being an excellent team that is able to put up a fight and has distanced itself from all those years of embarrassing gaffes that turned victory into defeat. The Badgers continue to have a very good program and Jonathan Taylor is among the best running backs in the country.
Throw in the bad weather that will impact both teams on Saturday afternoon, and this should be great fun.
If the Badgers want to leave TCF Bank Stadium with the Axe and the Big Ten West title in hand, they are going to have to do a lot more than be offended by how the Gophers elected to celebrate having possession of the Axe. They are going to have to punch Minnesota in the mouth for four quarters and play their best game of the season.
Even then it might not be enough. Gophers-Badgers finally appears to be a real rivalry and that’s something Minnesota’s neighbors to the east might have yet to fully realize. The Gophers want to spend another year parading that Axe around Minnesota and they have enough talent to make that a reality.