While others around the country may view the University of Wisconsin’s game Saturday at Minnesota as simply a warm-up for next week’s Big Ten Championship game, that couldn’t be further from the truth from the Badgers’ perspective.
Fifth-ranked UW hadn’t even left its locker room after Saturday’s win over Michigan before discussing the Gophers. Inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said his position coach, Bob Bostad, has already given a speech about respecting the long-standing history between the two teams. The Badgers even had running highlights of past Minnesota games on televisions around the athletic facilities Monday.
It’s Axe Week, and nothing else could be of greater importance to UW right now.
"I think guys came out (Monday) with a huge edge and are ready to just get up there and play,” Edwards said. "I wish it was Saturday already."
UW (11-0, 8-0) carries a 13-game winning streak over Minnesota (5-6, 2-6) into Saturday’s contest, a stretch the Badgers take enormous pride in. Paul Bunyan’s Axe has rested in a Madison trophy case after every game since 2003, when some of UW’s current players were barely in grade school.
Those victories don’t just pile up on their own, and despite enjoying more overall success on the field in recent years, the Badgers know an off game could translate into a devastating loss.
In fact, the last four wins for UW in the series have come by 14 points or less, including games in both 2014 and 2016 where a Badgers team ranked in the top 15 fell behind by two scores early and had to battle back.
“Each year is a new opportunity, and certainly this game means a ton to both sides,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. "If you look back at the history of it, both schools have had their runs. The great thing about sports is, what are you doing today? This group knows that, and it’s all about this year, two teams, and you’ve got to go play the game to earn the right to either keep the Axe or get the Axe."
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Minnesota has had its runs, indeed. Despite the 13-game winning streak, the all-time series record that began in 1890 is currently deadlocked at 59-59-8.
A win Saturday would give UW the series lead for the first time ever in what’s become the most-played rivalry in college football.
“I just actually asked one of the coaches (Monday) what the all-time series was,” UW tight end Troy Fumagalli said. "I don’t think we’ve ever had the lead. That’d be really cool. That’s another thing that we’re going to use as motivation during the week."
Saturday’s game could be a season-defining game for the Gophers, who are one win from bowl eligibility.
UW expects to see the best version of Minnesota on Saturday. While that still might not be enough to pull an upset, the Badgers aren’t viewing their attempt to extend their rivalry winning streak as a routine task.
“You have to bring your A-game because they’re going to be bringing theirs,” UW outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. "They’re going to be fighting their tails off this game. ... Them not having it since 2003, that’s one of the things they mark on their calendar where, ‘We need to get this Axe back to Minnesota.'
“It would kind of haunt us if we didn’t have that for a whole year."