Gophers’ Big Ten championship hopes still alive

Minnesota and Wisconsin will play next weekend for the Big Ten West.

Minnesota running back Donnell Kirkwood runs the ball Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Amanda Snyder

Minnesota running back Donnell Kirkwood runs the ball Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Jack Satzinger

LINCOLN, Neb. — As Donnell Kirkwood trotted onto Tom Osborne Field with 1:19 remaining, there were just three words in his head.

“Hold the ball,” he said.

The redshirt senior running back knew what was at stake. All he needed to do to seal a Minnesota victory over No. 21 Nebraska was keep the ball in his grasp and run 10 yards for a first down.

He did just that, bursting to the left for a first down that iced the game.

A few moments later, he looked up to the scoreboard and watched the clock expire, ensuring that the winner of Minnesota’s game at Wisconsin next week will take home more than just bragging rights and the Paul Bunyan’s Axe rivalry trophy.

The victor will also be the Big Ten West Division champion and play in the Big Ten championship game.

“I don’t think I need to say anything. There won’t be any motivational speeches. I think we all know we are battling for the axe, battling for the championship, going to Madison. It doesn’t get any better than that,” head coach Jerry Kill said.

Minnesota’s annual game with Wisconsin is almost always heated. Last season, the teams fired obscenities at one another on the field after the Badgers won 20-7.

But as the Gophers (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten) head to Camp Randall with a division title on the line on Saturday, there figures to be some added juice.

“This is what we have been working for all year. Everybody is excited for it. We get to battle for the axe. It’s going to be a hell of a game,” redshirt senior offensive lineman Zac Epping said.

Winning at Wisconsin isn’t easy. The Badgers (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) haven’t lost at home since November 2013, and they have arguably the country’s best running back in Melvin Gordon.

But Minnesota’s victory at Nebraska showed that the Gophers have what it takes to beat a ranked opponent with an elite running back on the road.

“It just proves that we can win in a hostile environment. We played at Michigan over 100,000 people, 90,000 people here. It’s great for us, and we can go into Camp Randall and get a win,” Epping said.

It didn’t always look like the Gophers were going to upset Nebraska. After the Cornhuskers blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown, the Gophers went into halftime down 21-7.

Despite the deficit, they remained calm.

“We came in at halftime, and we didn’t come in screaming or yelling or anything like that. We felt like we were playing pretty good. They just had a couple breaks, and we tried to convince the kids that we just had to go out there and play,” Kill said.

Things didn’t look good for the Gophers even after David Cobb ran 17 yards for a touchdown to trim the lead to 21-14 early in the third quarter. The star running back limped out of the end zone with an apparent left hamstring injury and didn’t play the rest of the game.

But backups Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams did enough to help quarterback Mitch Leidner.

A victory at Wisconsin next week will be hard to come by, especially if Cobb isn’t 100 percent healthy. But at the beginning of the season, a Big Ten championship didn’t look likely, either.

Now it’s within reach.

“I wouldn’t put anything past our kids right now,” Kill said. “That’s for sure.”