Rivalry could reach new heights

There is no love lost between the Badgers and Gophers.

Josh Katzenstein

When Eric Small had to describe his motivation for this SaturdayâÄôs game for Wisconsin, he struggled to find the right words. MinnesotaâÄôs captain defensive tackle has one thing on his mind for the upcoming game. âÄúI just want to run across the field at TCF Bank Stadium and pick up that axe. ThatâÄôs all I want.âÄù Small, along with every current Gophers football player, has never won Paul BunyanâÄôs Axe. If the Gophers win, Small said he will run across the field and try to be the first to hoist it. In the 118 games between Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Gophers lead the all-time series 59-51-8 . While Minnesota may hold a historical edge, the Badgers currently hold all bragging rights winning the last five meetings as well as 12 of the last 14. Arguments are made as to whether or not Iowa, who Minnesota has played since 1891 , is the Gophers biggest rival. Regardless of which game is bigger, it doesnâÄôt take long to realize that there is little love lost between the Gophers and Badgers. âÄúEvery single play, every single hit, youâÄôre trying to send a message,âÄù Minnesota junior quarterback Adam Weber said. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has been at the helm for three victories over the Gophers. âÄúComing here to Wisconsin I didnâÄôt really know anything about the rivalry between Wisconsin and Minnesota,âÄù Bielema said. âÄúI obviously knew it was a border battle and the awareness of the axe.âÄù While Bielema said he didnâÄôt initially know about the rivalry, he said he tries to keep his team focused on the Xs and Os when looking toward SaturdayâÄôs game. But for Weber and Small, the game carries more weight than just another conference game. âÄúYou want to get it done for your teammates, the coaches and everyone in this state,âÄù Small said. Growing up in Shoreview, Minn., Weber said he has been dreaming of carrying the axe across the field his entire life, a mindset which he said he is trying to instill in the minds of his teammates. Weber said he has gone to every Gophers home football game against Wisconsin since he was born. In coming to the University of Minnesota, he said one of his goals was to win the axe âÄî something he has failed to do in his two years with the team. âÄúLosing the last two years hurts, but knowing we have this year to kind of redeem ourselves, especially in our new TCF Bank Stadium, itâÄôs something that would be lifelong special that we could share with our teammates for the rest of our lives,âÄù he said. Many games in this rivalry have created everlasting memories for both sides. The 1914 matchup served as MinnesotaâÄôs first homecoming game, which the Gophers won, 14-3. In 1993, Minnesota handed Wisconsin its only loss of the season, 28-21 , as the Badgers went on the win the Rose Bowl. If Wisconsin had come out on top in that game, the Badgers could have continued a storied run toward the national championship. Instead, Wisconsin finished the season 10-1-1, ranked 10th nationally. Last season, the Gophers entered Camp Randall looking to rebound from disappointing losses to Northwestern and Michigan. The Gophers held a 21-7 lead after the first half, but the Badgers came back to win the game, 35-32, as Minnesota went on to lose its next two games including a 55-0 loss to rival Iowa. With the game moving into the GophersâÄô new stadium, the rivalry takes on a storyline thatâÄôs been absent since the team moved to the Metrodome in 1982 : a true home field advantage for the Gophers. The move into TCF Bank Stadium may be just what the Gophers need to change their luck in this border battle. Minnesota only won six of 13 games against Wisconsin in the Metrodome. As Bielema looks toward SaturdayâÄôs game, his team faces an environment different than any of the current Badgers have experienced in the past. âÄúYou can just see the energy in the crowd,âÄù Bielema said. âÄúI was able to be a [television] spectator of the Minnesota/Cal game; that was a very, very good environment.âÄù When the Gophers face off against the Badgers on Saturday, it will pit two teams, schools and states against each other for the 119th time in history. The game is the longest running tradition for both teams. Win, lose or tie, there will be no love for the opposition in TCF Bank Stadium.

A tradition of bad blood

Gophers head coach Tim Brewster has seen his share of rivalries. As a tight ends coach at Texas from 1998-2001 , Brewster experienced the Red River Shootout between Texas and Oklahoma âÄî a game that needs to be played on a neutral site each year. âÄúThose that arenâÄôt familiar with the [Minnesota/Wisconsin] rivalry probably downplay it a little bit nationally,âÄù Brewster said. âÄùIâÄôve been around some really big rival football games, and I think this is as good as it gets.âÄù The Gophers-Badgers game may take a backseat in the ratings to the Red River Shootout, the Michigan-Ohio State game, the Florida-Georgia game and other national border and in-state rivalries, but there is plenty of bad blood between the schools. One of the biggest in-state rivalries nationally might steal some of the Minnesota-Wisconsin thunder this weekend as No. 22 Michigan travels to Michigan State on Saturday. Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio first experienced the in-state rivalry when he became Michigan StateâÄôs secondary coach in 1995. With that familiarity and more under his belt, he said itâÄôs critical for teams to embrace and win rivalry games when they arise. âÄúI think itâÄôs important that every program âĦ has a rivalry,âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôs a little bit different game you can point towards. Your players understand itâÄôs special, and your alumni understand itâÄôs special.âÄù In preparing for such a big rivalry, Wolverines head coach Rich Rodriguez said his staff tries to keep the team focused on academics and the game. With such a big game ahead of his team, though, it might be tough for players to keep their minds from wandering. âÄúItâÄôs such an important game, and itâÄôs something that our guys know theyâÄôll hear about, not just the next 365 days but the rest of their lives,âÄù Rodriguez said.