Gophers players looking to grab the axe for the first time

Josh Katzenstein

An opportunity for salvation.

ThatâÄôs how a number of the Minnesota football players view SaturdayâÄôs game at No. 20 Wisconsin, the 120th edition of the longest running rivalry in college football.

The Gophers have not beaten the Badgers since 2003 and have not won at Camp Randall Stadium since 1994.

But the losing streak on many peopleâÄôs mind is the current four-game skid this season.

Senior quarterback Adam Weber said a win would not erase whatâÄôs transpired the past four weeks, but bringing Paul BunyanâÄôs Axe back on the bus would be a nice consolation prize.

âÄúFor us to actually be able to get [the Axe],âÄù junior running back DeLeon Eskridge said, âÄúI think it would just help people not think about the season and just help everybody come together.âÄù

Out of the 105 players on the Gophers roster, safety Kim Royston âÄî who said his broken leg feels 99.8 percent better but remains a game-time decision âÄî is the only one to win the Axe. He accomplished the feat before transferring from Wisconsin after the 2007 season.

The Gophers also have five coaches that have won the Axe with the Badgers, but co-offensive coordinator Jeff Horton is the only one to win it on both sides. He won the battle five times for Wisconsin as a coach from 1999 to 2005 and one for Minnesota during his 1984 stint as a graduate assistant.

âÄúIt hopefully gives you a little credibility that youâÄôve been in that battle and youâÄôve found a way to win,âÄù Horton said about conveying his past to the players. âÄúThe biggest thing is making them realize the importance of it. To us itâÄôs really not another game.âÄù

Weber knows that as well as anybody. The Mounds View graduateâÄôs father Bob was on two axe-winning teams. This Weber has yet to win it, though, and heâÄôs started the previous three contests, all losses of seven points or fewer.

âÄúOut of all the series throughout my career, this oneâÄôs been pretty painful,âÄù Weber said.

He didnâÄôt say it was the most painful, however, because the GophersâÄô other trophies have stayed at Iowa, Michigan and Penn State since Weber took the starting job and Tim Brewster became the head coach.

But just as this team has had chances to win in each of its four losses this year, the Gophers have been right there when it comes to Wisconsin.

âÄúThose have been three really close games and three games that we could have won,âÄù senior safety Kyle Theret said. âÄúNow we just have to go try to get over that little hump that we never have.âÄù

Weber has seen Minnesota win the Axe from the stands, but heâÄôs walked off the field three times while the opponents ran to reclaim what was already theirs.

âÄúIt hurts you. It definitely hurts you,âÄù Weber said about watching the celebration. âÄúBut you watch that and you see how much fun and how much enjoyment they get out of that.

âÄúTo be part of a team thatâÄôs able to do that would be something that IâÄôll cherish for the rest of my life.âÄù

Theret and Eskridge are from California, but both said they discovered the excitement surrounding this rivalry as soon as they came to Minnesota.

Although the results havenâÄôt been good for the Gophers, the excitement lingers, especially for their first conference road test.

âÄúWhen I had a game there two years ago that was probably the most exciting game IâÄôve ever been a part of, just based off of atmosphere and what itâÄôs like, the rivalry and just knowing the history behind it and how intense it is out there,âÄù Theret said about Camp Randall. âÄúItâÄôs exciting. ItâÄôs exactly what you want when you go on the road and you play a Big Ten team.âÄù

What Weber wants is to silence the crowd and take all the excitement away from Wisconsin and its fans. He said Brewster has reminded him âÄúthe best noise in sports is quiet.âÄù

âÄúAs a football player, you couldn’t want anything more than to go into that environment and embrace it, accept the challenge, and go out and play well,âÄù Brewster said.

Brewster also mentioned that the Gophers will bring an âÄúus against the worldâÄù mentality to Madison. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said that motivation should keep the 22-point favorites from overlooking SaturdayâÄôs game.

âÄúBecause of where theyâÄôre at right now, I expect them to come in here as hungry and as eager to be part of success as anybody that weâÄôve faced to this point,âÄù Bielema said of the Gophers. âÄúTheyâÄôre going to come in and know itâÄôs a rivalry game, know that itâÄôs homecoming here, and theyâÄôll have all those things working on their behalf for motivation.âÄù

That mentality could help Minnesota, but the Gophers first need to avoid the âÄúus against usâÄù issue displayed in recent years against Wisconsin.

In each of the last three meetings, Minnesota has suffered at least nine penalties for 75 or more yards. The Gophers have also lost three turnovers in each game.

Chop both those and the Gophers should have a chance to end all the streaks.

âÄúWeâÄôre really hoping, and IâÄôm really hoping that this year we can go out and stay calm, stay relaxed, really capitalize on the opportunities that present themselves and then be able to chop down their goal post,âÄù Weber said. âÄúThatâÄôs the tradition with the axe. They were able to do it in our brand new stadium, and thatâÄôs what I dream about.âÄù