Wisconsin Badgers ready to defend Paul Bunyan's Axe
MADISON—Ten years have passed but Wisconsin’s Brendan Kelly hasn’t forgotten the first college football game he attended.
The date: Nov. 8, 2003.
The site: The Metrodome in Minneapolis.
The combatants: Minnesota and UW.
“I remember looking up and everybody…half were in red and half were in maroon and gold,” the sixth-year linebacker said after UW’s victory over Indiana on Saturday. “I thought: ‘They travel this well? Man these Badger fans are serious.’
“And now I’m playing in that game.”
When UW (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) meets Minnesota (8-2, 4-2) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, the Badgers will be trying to retain Paul Bunyan’s Axe, extend their winning streak in the series to 10 games and keep alive their slim hopes for a Bowl Championship Series at-large berth. UW moved up three spots to No. 17 in the USA Today poll on Sunday and three spots to No. 19 in the BCS standings.
That first college football game Kelly attended? He saw the Gophers’ last victory in the series, a 37-34 decision secured on a 35-yard field goal by Rhys Lloyd on the final play of the game.
“It is a big week for me,” said Kelly, from Eden Prairie, Minn. “From the time that whistle blew at the end of the game I was amped and ready for Minnesota. I don’t want to give up that Axe.
“That is one of the things I look forward to every season. I called the linebackers up and said this is a big week. Let’s not take this lightly.”
Not a chance.
No player on the UW roster has experienced a season without seeing the Axe in the locker room.
Minutes after the 51-3 victory over Indiana, the topic of discussion in the UW locker room turned to Minnesota.
“It is an easy game to focus on,” senior linebacker Chris Borland said. “It’s the rivalry. We’ve got the Axe in our locker room. We see it every day. On top of that, they’re a much-improved team.
“It will be easy to get ready.”
UW regained the Axe in 2004 when quarterback John Stocco, a Minnesota native, passed for 297 yards and a touchdown and rushed for two scores in a 38-14 victory in Madison.
Including that victory, the UW players have had the pleasure of grabbing the Axe and parading around the stadium nine consecutive seasons—five times in Madison and four times in Minneapolis.
“It’s been so long since we haven’t had the Axe here,” said quarterback Joel Stave, who said he was a fourth-grader the last time the Gophers beat UW. “That’s not something you ever want to be a part of, the team that lost the Axe.”
Minnesota, coming off a bye week, has won its last four Big Ten games. The last time the Gophers won four consecutive Big Ten games in a season was 1973. The Gophers moved up two spots to No. 23 in The USA Today poll Sunday.
The last time the Gophers won eight games in a season? The 2003 season, when they beat UW and went on to finish 10-3 under Glen Mason.
“We’re having fun now,” Minnesota tailback David Cobb said after rushing 27 times for 139 yards and a touchdown in the Gophers’ 24-10 victory over Penn State on Nov. 19. “Before it was more of a job coming to work and you didn’t know if you were going to win or not.
“But now we expect to win. We’re having fun during practice. We’re having fun during games.
“The coaches believe in us. We trust each other as players.”
The Gophers have survived despite the absence of head coach Jerry Kill, who missed the Michigan game Oct. 5 after suffering a seizure related to his epilepsy and has since been on a leave of absence.
Minnesota’s players and coaches believe they are better prepared to match up with UW, which has won the last three meetings by an average of 24 points and has won five of the last nine games by 18 points or more.
“The rivalry has obviously gotten a little lopsided over the last few years,” Stave said. “It is good to see them putting together a good season.
“I think that brings so much more attention to this game. It’s going to be fun. They’re going to have a good crowd. It’s going to be a good environment.
“That’s what rivalry games are about.”