Minnesota wants the Axe

The Gophers last won Paul Bunyan’s Axe in 2003.

Ryan Falk

The Gophers are looking to break one streak and keep another going on Saturday.

The Gophers would become bowl eligible for the third straight season with a victory over rival Wisconsin on Saturday and would end a losing streak against the Badgers that started in 2004.

One streak seems more important to the Gophers than the other, however.

“It’s the rivalry game and getting [Paul Bunyan’s Axe],” head coach Tracy Claeys said. “No disrespect to the bowl, but that’s a side product to this. I don’t think you’re respecting the tradition if you go and talk about the bowl games because this axe has been in play for a long time, and we haven’t had it for a while.”

The longest running rivalry in the Football Bowl Subdivision, symbolized by the trophy of Paul Bunyan’s Axe, still has significance to the Gophers despite their long losing streak.

“It’s more than just two schools playing each other; it’s basically like two states going head-to-head,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Theiren Cockran said.

The Gophers came close to taking back the Axe last year, leading the Badgers 17-3 at one point in the final game of the regular season. Wisconsin rallied to win the game 34-24, though, defeating Minnesota by double-digits for the fifth straight season.

Not even current graduate assistant Adam Weber, who ended his college career in 2010 as the Gophers’ all-time leading passer, was able to hoist the axe in his career.

“I know how much pride [Weber] has for the Gophers football team and how prideful the tradition is here,” redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “That’s something that he’s going to be wanting is to get that axe back.”

Wisconsin’s stout defense may provide the Gophers’ biggest barrier to victory on Saturday.

The Badgers have the Big Ten’s second-best scoring defense, only allowing 12.4 points per game.  

Minnesota’s offense is on the other end of the spectrum, ranking 13th in scoring at 22.7 points per game.

“Their kids are playing fast, and they’re doing a lot of studying and blitzing,” Claeys said. “I think defensively for where they’ve lost some of the running game on offense, they’ve definitely picked up on how well they’re playing on defense.”

The Gophers will have extra motivation in the game beyond having a trophy and a bowl trip on the line, as retired head coach Jerry Kill will be in attendance on Saturday to help honor the team’s seniors.

The game will be the last one at home for the seniors and maybe the last game of their college careers unless they can finally capture the trophy that’s eluded them for so long.

“I told the [offensive line] on Saturday after the [Illinois] game, we take a group picture after every time we win one of the trophy games,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “I have a space open in my den for one of those, for the axe. Everybody knows, and everybody will be ready to go. Those kids will play their tail ends off. They understand.”