Plenty at stake for Gophers in their biggest game in over 50 years

As a Milwaukee native, Minnesota defensive lineman Cameron Botticelli grew up attending Wisconsin games at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison and has seen the Gophers-Badgers rivalry from both sides of the border.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Back in November of 1960, rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin faced off in the final game of the regular season. The Gophers needed a win to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. With a 26-7 victory over the Badgers, Minnesota punched its ticket to Pasadena and eventually won the Associated Press National Championship.

That game in Madison 54 years ago was perhaps one of the most important victories in the history of the Gophers program, let alone in this rivalry’s long-running history. Some Minnesota fans think this Saturday’s meeting between the same two teams could be just as big — if not, bigger.

There’s plenty at stake this weekend in Madison, where the Gophers will put their 8-3 record and 5-2 mark in the Big Ten to the test against Wisconsin. Only a few small things are on the line this Saturday for Minnesota. Paul Bunyan’s Axe. A 10-game losing streak against Wisconsin.

Oh, and the Big Ten West title and a trip to Indianapolis for the conference championship.

Given all of that, it’s not hyperbolic to say Saturday’s game is one of the biggest in University Minnesota football history. Plenty of Gophers fans and alumni have flooded head coach Jerry Kill’s phone and email to tell him about the magnitude of the game.

"I don’t know how many emails and text messages (I’ve received)," Kill said this week. "I try to live in a bubble, I really do. And so I’m trying to do my darndest, but I also have to get ready for the game. You’ve got to draw the line. But I think those people understand.  I just think they’re letting me know."

Minnesota’s first 11 games — and really, Kill’s first four years as the head coach — have been a steady crescendo, slowly building to this point in the final game of the regular season. It was the high point the Gophers hoped to reach before the year even started. Winning a Big Ten championship was always the goal from the onset of fall camp.

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Thanks to big wins against Iowa and Nebraska in the past three weeks, Minnesota still has a chance to accomplish that. The significance of Saturday’s contest is by no means lost on the Gophers players, who were not even teenagers yet the last time Minnesota beat Wisconsin.

"Coaches have stressed the importance of this game, although they don’t really need to," said senior defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli. "Everyone in this room and in our locker room knows how important this game is. (On Monday) we didn’t have any football responsibilities, but guys took it upon themselves to come in, get some recovery, get some extra film.

"There’s not a soul in this building that doesn’t realize how big this game is."

Botticelli understands just as well as anyone how important this rivalry is to the two bordering states. As a Milwaukee native, he grew up attending Wisconsin games at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison and has seen the rivalry from both sides of the border. The Badgers beat the Gophers during Botticelli’s four years at Marquette High School.

There’s a good chance Botticelli may be the only Gopher — or one of just a small few — who have actually gotten their hands on Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Botticelli had that opportunity during a recruiting trip to Wisconsin.

He’s hoping he’ll finally have it in his possession for good Saturday.

"It goes without saying, but it’s one of the most storied, if not the most storied rivalry in college football. It’s certainly the oldest," Botticelli said of Minnesota and Wisconsin, whose meeting Saturday will be an FBS record 124th game. "It’s a great opportunity to bring that (Axe) back to the state of Minnesota if we buckle down, if we focus and if we put in the hard work that’ll earn us that opportunity."

With a spot in the Big Ten championship game on the line, parts of this rivalry have almost become secondary. Paul Bunyan’s Axe has remained a talking point this week, but perhaps more so for Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen’s explanation of how the postgame celebration with the Axe will take place this year. And it’s almost a forgotten fact that Minnesota has lost the last 10 in a row against the Badgers. This Gophers team doesn’t seem to care about the struggles previous teams have had; the 2014 edition is confident enough in itself and its ability to win.

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When Minnesota beat Michigan earlier this season for the first time since 2005, the Gophers paraded the Little Brown Jug around campus for weeks. When they claimed Floyd of Rosedale a few weeks later after beating Iowa, the trophy case was filling up even more as another rivalry trophy was celebrated.

There’s just one empty Axe-shaped spot left in that case. With so much build-up and anticipation leading up to Saturday, it makes you wonder what the Gophers have in store for the Axe if they do bring it back to Dinkytown this weekend.

"Last week was the biggest game of my career, and now this week is the biggest game of my career," said Minnesota running back Donnell Kirkwood. "It means a lot. We’re playing for the Axe. We’re playing to have all four trophies. We’re playing for our side of the division. We’re playing to go to the Big Ten championship. There’s so much at stake. . . . By Thursday or Friday, it’ll be kind of hard to sleep."

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