Badgers-Gophers rivalry gets boost as both teams good

MADISON, Wis. — There is history and tradition that is
impossible to escape when it comes to the Wisconsin-Minnesota football rivalry.
Playing 122 times over the years and introducing a traveling trophy tends to
create its share of lasting memories.

But there also have been a fair share of one-sided victories
for Wisconsin in recent years. The Badgers have won the past three games alone
by a combined 72 points. That’s mostly because, well, Minnesota hasn’t been all
that good.

Saturday, however, will represent a refreshing change and
provide the latest twist in a century-old border battle. For the first time
since 2005, both teams enter the game as nationally ranked foes.

“They’re 8-2,” Badgers senior linebacker Chris
Borland said. “It’s the first time this has been a ranked team versus a
ranked team in my time here. We love it. That adds a lot to it. It makes it
even more meaningful.”

Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1 in Big Ten play), ranked No. 19 in the
latest BCS standings, will travel to face BCS No. 25 Minnesota (8-2, 4-2) at
2:30 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota hadn’t won at least eight
games since 2003, when it finished 10-3 under Glen Mason and won the Sun Bowl.
That was also the last year the Gophers beat the Badgers.

The Gophers have reached this point on the strength of four
consecutive victories, including a surprising triumph at Northwestern and home
wins against Nebraska and Penn State. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has reeled off five
straight wins since a 31-24 defeat at Ohio State back on Sept. 28.

The improved play from both teams helps add intrigue to a
game that could now have major implications in the BCS bowl race for Wisconsin.
The Badgers need to jump five spots over their final two games to position
themselves for a possible at-large berth in a BCS game. Otherwise, Wisconsin’s
likely destination will be either the Capital One Bowl or the Outback Bowl.

Wisconsin players aren’t thinking that far ahead just yet.
Instead, they’re simply intent on maintaining control of Paul Bunyan’s Axe,
which was created by Wisconsin’s letterwinners’ organization back in 1948 and
has gone to the winning team each season.

Wisconsin has won nine consecutive games in the series,
prevailing by an average score of 39-15. And early Las Vegas point spreads put
Wisconsin as a 16-point favorite, even though this is Minnesota’s best team in
a decade.

“I can’t even remember the last time that we didn’t
have the axe,” Badgers nose guard Beau Allen said. “And that’s just a
testament to what we’ve had going on here. We’re kind of spoiled that way I
guess. We would like to keep that. I’ve had it all throughout my career here.
You get so used to it being in the locker room. I can’t even imagine what that
empty trophy case would mean. So we’re going to fight so it’s not like that.
We’re going to hold onto it.”

Added UW quarterback Joel Stave: “It’s been so many
years since we haven’t had it that you’d hate to be the group to lose it.”

It is tradition that the senior class takes turns chopping
down the goal post with the axe after a victory. This year’s senior group at
Wisconsin is especially big with 22 players, which could mean several Badgers
would need to fight for time with the axe if they win on the road.

“We’ll just stay out there longer,” Borland said.

This season marks Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen’s first
foray into the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry, though his days as an assistant at
Utah and head coach at Utah State taught him plenty about what it means to
prepare for a game of this magnitude. Utah, Utah State and BYU play for the
Beehive Boot for intrastate supremacy, while Utah State and BYU play for the
Old Wagon Wheel.

This week, the axe is up for grabs again. And this time,
there is more on the line than usual.

“Rivalries that have gone on for this long have so many
stories behind them, so many moments behind them,” Andersen said.
“It’s what I’m used to. It’s what’s great about college football, in my
opinion. I love playing it this late in the year. It just makes it that much
more special.”

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