Caesar Williams always appears to be in good spirits.
The Wisconsin football team’s sixth-year senior cornerback is usually smiling, pleasant and willing to engage in friendly banter about pretty much anything.
You want to see his face really brighten, though?
Ask him to share his memories of UW’s 38-17 victory over Minnesota in the 2019 regular-season finale.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, grinning. “A lot of memories.”
There was Williams intercepting a pass and gaining 14 yards to the Minnesota 27 in the second quarter to set up UW’s first score, a 26-yard field goal by Zach Hintze.
There was Williams breaking up a deep throw in the third quarter, leading to a Minnesota punt. UW then drove 91 yards in just four plays for a 10-point lead.
There was Williams breaking up consecutive passes early in the fourth quarter, on third and goal and fourth and goal, to stymie another scoring threat. UW then drove 96 yards in just six plays for a touchdown and a 21-point lead.
There was Williams and his teammates parading around the stadium with Paul Bunyan’s Axe and celebrating the Big Ten West Division title and a berth in the league title game.
“The guys sang me ‘Happy Birthday’ on the plane,” said Williams, who turned 22 that November. “After a good game, a birthday and a trip to the Big Ten title game … it was a fantastic three.”
The setting should be similar when UW (8-3, 6-2 Big Ten) and Minnesota (7-4, 5-3) meet at 3 p.m. Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium.
UW would secure a berth in the Big Ten title game with a victory over the Gophers regardless of how Iowa (9-2, 6-2) fares Friday against Nebraska.
The Gophers need help to reach Indianapolis. They must win, Nebraska must beat Iowa and Purdue (7-4, 5-3) must defeat Indiana.
“Same scenario,” said senior cornerback Faion Hicks, who recorded three tackles in the 2019 game. “Going to Minnesota. Going into their house.
“You wouldn’t ask for it any other way. The axe is on the line. Big Ten West on the line. Big Ten championship. This is what you want.
“No pressure. Just go out there and perform.”
Just as Paul Chryst’s players did in 2019.
Quarterback Jack Coan passed for 280 yards and two touchdowns; Jonathan Taylor rushed for two scores and caught a touchdown pass; Quintez Cephus caught five passes for 114 yards; Kendric Pryor scored on a 26-yard end-around; and the defense recorded five sacks and forced two turnovers.
“I think that was the first time we played a complete game as a team,” Hicks said, referring to Big Ten play. “We dominated. It was special. Everybody on every level just played their friggin’ hearts out. That was a very special moment.”
Senior linebacker Jack Sanborn remembers what UW accomplished on that snowy November day for two reasons.
First, UW was 3-2 in the Big Ten after back-to-back losses to Illinois and Ohio State. The Badgers had to win their final four league games to win the division.
“I remember that feeling and I want that again,” he said. “Once you have it, what drives you is to feel it again.
“A lot of guys were a part of that team. We know what it takes. We know it’s is going to be a tough environment, tough game. We’re excited for it.”
Second, UW had suffered a 37-15 home loss to Minnesota one year earlier. That snapped a string of 14 consecutive victories over the Gophers.
Seeing Minnesota’s players parade around Camp Randall stadium with the axe was unbearable.
“That is what really struck me, how painful that was for everyone,” said Sanborn, who was a freshman in 2018. “You could see it. You could feel what everyone was going through, all the seniors, how losing that axe meant to much. It really hits you.
“Then us getting it back in 2019, that is what this sport is about.”
UW needed overtime to keep the axe in 2020. No division title was on the line last season, however.
“No other game matters but this one,” Hicks said. “This is what you work all year for. Last game of the year, go out there and win.
“It is going to be physical. At the end of the day, we just don’t like each other.”