MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A rivalry game isn’t much of a rivalry if one team keeps winning.
Maybe this is the year that Minnesota finally breaks through against Wisconsin.
For the Gophers, a dozen years is long enough to be without possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe , the trophy that goes to the victor of the annual grudge match. Minnesota missed a chance to spoil fifth-ranked Wisconsin’s designs on going to the Big Ten title game when the Badgers won the West with Nebraska’s loss at Iowa on Friday.
“I know it’s important to the people of the state. It’s important to our kids, but the only way to get it back is to win the football game,” Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said. “And that sounds kind of crazy but everybody wants it back.”
Minnesota last beat Wisconsin on Nov. 8, 2003, a 37-34 victory in Minneapolis. That was also the last season that the Gophers finished with more than eight wins, when they finished 10-3. The last time that the Gophers won in Madison was Oct. 22, 1994, a 17-14 decision.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst has his team well-trained in not offering bulletin-board material. For a small group of fifth-year seniors that had two coaching changes in their careers, this regular-season finale Satuday represents a chance to leave a memorable final impression at Camp Randall Stadium.
“All that turnover … and how we stayed tight and stayed close as a group” helped the Badgers power through a gantlet of a schedule, senior running back Dare Ogunbowale said.
Wisconsin (9-2, 6-2, No. 6 CFP) is bowl-eligible for the 15th straight season, the longest active streak in the league.
Minnesota (8-3, 5-3) is guaranteed to have a winning Big Ten record for the second time in three years. The last time that happened was 1968-1969. The last time that Minnesota won six conference games was 1973.
A win over Wisconsin could do much more for the Gophers’ collective psyche.
“I think that this one gives us much more hope, just knowing how long it’s been since the axe has been here,” said fifth-year senior quarterback Mitch Leidner, who was 9 years-old when Minnesota last had the axe.
Other things to watch and notes ahead of Saturday’s game:
Wisconsin won the West when Iowa thumped No. 17 Nebraska 40-10 on Friday. The Badgers still have an outside shot at the playoffs — provided they win out.
“Everybody’s just bringing energy, making sure they are sharpening their tools and getting ready for Saturday,” senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton said this week.
RUN IT OUT
Wisconsin leads the FBS with an average time of possession of 35:24, not surprising for an offense averaging 249 yards on the ground over the last four games. By playing keep-away, the Badgers set the tone while also keeping its tough defense fresh.
HOLDING THEIR GROUND
The Gophers were gashed by Wisconsin’s vaunted running game last year, like so many times over the last two decades, while allowing 257 yards in a 31-21 loss. Minnesota’s defensive line was diluted at the end of last season because of injuries, but this time the group is at full strength.
The Gophers limited Northwestern’s Justin Jackson , the Big Ten’s third-leading rusher, to 90 yards last week and are third in the conference with an average of 116.6 yards per game allowed.
The Gophers are just as deep at linebacker, with freshmen Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin, Thomas Barber and Blake Cashman all getting playing time. Cashman, a walk-on who redshirted last year, has been the biggest revelation.
Cashman had 10 tackles last week against Northwestern and a sack, earning him the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week award. Rallis and his teammates have playfully nicknamed him “Pretty Boy” for his propensity to carefully apply facial cream and hair gel during the cleanup process in the locker room after practices or games.
As if their defense didn’t cause enough problems, the Badgers have been winning the turnover margin lately with seven interceptions the last two weeks. Safety Leo Musso has three picks in that span. The front seven might be the engine, but the secondary has played well, too, taking advantage of mistakes that opponents make under pressure.
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