For possibly the first time ever, the Paul Bunyan Axe will be the least meaningful thing at stake between Wisconsin and Minnesota.
With ESPN’s “College GameDay” show traveling to Minneapolis for the first time ever, the Big Ten West title and a trip to the conference championship game going to the winner — and possible College Football Playoff opportunities still in play — there might not be a bigger rendition of the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry when the No. 8 Golden Gophers host the No. 12 Badgers on Saturday.
The winner will advance to face Ohio State in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis on Dec. 7.
A few weeks after hosting and then beating Penn State in what was dubbed the biggest Minnesota home game in years, this game against Wisconsin will have even more hype.
“It’s quite an accomplishment when everybody picked us to finish sixth in the West,” Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck said. “I remember telling everyone in January that I really liked this football team. I couldn’t promise what they were going to do and had no idea what was going to happen. But I really liked this football team.”
In addition to wanting to get back to Indianapolis and earn a rematch with the Buckeyes, Wisconsin (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) wants to earn payback for a 37-15 loss to the Golden Gophers last year in Madison.
The win snapped Minnesota’s 14-game losing streak to Wisconsin and was only the third time since 1995 that the Golden Gophers (10-1, 7-1) claimed possession of the axe, and Minnesota wasn’t shy about boasting how much the program enjoyed having it over the offseason.
Fleck and others at the school took the axe around the state to show it off throughout the offseason, although Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said he wasn’t perturbed by that, at least publicly.
“They can do what they want to do,” Chryst said. “They earned the right to have it. I didn’t spend a lot of time following or tracking it. Last year, they beat us.”
The game will feature two high-scoring offenses that produce points in different ways.
Minnesota runs a lot of spread and run-pass option concepts, which has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in Rodney Smith and two receivers with over 1,000 yards in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman.
Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan has thrown for 2,679 yards and 26 touchdowns.
“We don’t run the same things all the time,” Fleck said. “We are evolving it and making a really good game plan based on the defenses we see. The credit goes to the players.”
On the other side, Wisconsin is powered by a terrific offensive line paving the way for one of the nation’s top running backs, junior Jonathan Taylor, who has rushed for 1,685 yards and 18 touchdowns this season in a record-setting career.
If Wisconsin and Taylor can churn out yards, the Badgers could control the clock and keep Minnesota’s high-powered offense off the field.
“The axe is symbolic and it’s awesome to be part of a rivalry such as this,” Chryst said. “It’s a symbol of who won that year. Our guys know the history of this rivalry and understand what’s in it for this year. The biggest thing that matters is that they focus on playing the game.”
–Field Level Media