CHICAGO — Minnesota’s football players formed a barricade around their goal post in the emotional moments after another loss to Wisconsin last November. In the unwritten rules of the annual border rivalry, this was perhaps considered poor form. It is the winner’s right, after all, to symbolically chop the post with the trophy — the coveted Paul Bunyan Axe.
Then again, it is also the loser’s right to maintain a sense of pride about the whole thing. And so, the Gophers did not budge. Tempers flared. Words were exchanged. Pushing ensued. Until finally, both teams went their separate ways, a Wisconsin victory still in tow for the 10th consecutive season.
"They were just trying to get our goal posts again and we didn’t want to have it," Gophers safety Cedric Thompson said Monday during the Big Ten media days. "We were tired of them chopping down our goal posts. We just were not having it."
Some may suggest a rivalry can only be called as such if both teams consistently test the other. Ten straight Wisconsin wins, by an average score of 37-21, does not necessarily give off the appearance, then, of a fierce rivalry.
But the series itself has never been stronger, according to Minnesota players and coaches. The longer players have to wait to win back the Axe, the more they want it. And last year’s fracas provided yet another chapter in the evolving distaste the two programs share for the other.
"It’s definitely in the back of our heads," Minnesota running back David Cobb said. "We just want to win every game. But when you have a team that comes across your field and wants to chop your goal post down, that doesn’t sit well with us. We’ll go into Wisconsin this year with a little revenge. And once we win the Axe, we will be chopping that goal post down."
Establishing control of the Axe is such a point of emphasis, even in the offseason, that Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner admitted to talking about it Sunday night with teammates at the airport while waiting for the flight to Chicago. Of course, talking in July and celebrating in November are two very different events.
Minnesota has taken great strides in three seasons under head coach Jerry Kill, improving from three wins to six to eight for the first time since 2003 — the last year the team won the Axe. But the Gophers, who began the season 8-2 and won four straight Big Ten games for the first time since 1973, also fizzled. They lost their final three games to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.
The 20-7 loss to Wisconsin, which snapped that four-game winning streak, was particularly difficult.
"I think we understand for us to be successful and win the Big Ten and take our strides farther along in our program, you have to beat the border schools," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "We’re well aware of that situation. And as you take steps, those are games you’ve got to win. Wisconsin and Iowa are very well coached and have got good players. But we have to step our game up, and I think our kids are excited. And I think we know what we need to do. We’ve just got to go out and do it."
Hope springs eternal this time of the year in college football, and Minnesota players believe they can improve on their eight-win season from a year ago. But in order to truly make their mark and create a special season, they acknowledge winning back the Axe is paramount.
Minnesota will have its opportunity to do just that in the regular-season finale at Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 29.
"I am so happy it’s the last game," Thompson said. "At the end of the season, our bodies are beat up. You’ve been through 11 hard games, done everything you can to win those 11 hard games. But the fact that it’s Wisconsin and it’s the Axe, all that’s going to go out the window for everybody.
"The Axe is something that we want so bad. So when it comes to the 12th game, all the pain that everybody is going through, all the tiredness everybody is going through, when we step on that field at Wisconsin, everything is going to go out of the way because we want to do everything it takes to get that Axe."