Badgers Look to Play Keep Away With Axe

Russell Wilson has sure been making the most of his one season at Wisconsin. Losing to Minnesota would quickly taint his epic one-and-done turn as the Badgers' quarterback.

''I think your heart would sink, and it would be one of those unbelievable moments that you've just never experienced,'' said center Peter Konz. ''I haven't experienced it since watching it on TV as a kid. Since I'm invested in it more now, it would be 10 times as bad. I'm not even going to think about it.''

The 16th-ranked Badgers have had Paul Bunyan's Axe since 2004, and their weekend plans include continuing their game of keep-away with the Gophers. Wilson is not from either state, but the FBS leader in passing sounded like he's got a grasp of how important this border rivalry - the most-played series in college football history, dating to 1890 - is to players on both teams.

''It just means a lot in terms of the pride and the tradition here,'' Wilson said.

Each of the Badgers touched the 6-foot-4 trophy on their way off the practice field Tuesday, after former defensive back Ben Strickland spoke to the team about beating the Gophers. Strickland recovered a blocked punt in the end zone with 30 seconds left in the 2005 game at the Metrodome to give Wisconsin a 38-34 victory after trailing by 10 points with 3 1/2 minutes left.

Last year's matchup in Madison wasn't that close. The Badgers won 41-23 and angered then-coach Tim Brewster with a 2-point conversion late in the game. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is an old friend of current Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, so any lingering bitterness should have dissipated by now.

The Gophers haven't forgotten, but the Minnesota natives in particular are motivated by the natural dislike for this interstate opponent rather than exacting revenge for the conversion.

''I remember it,'' said sixth-year senior free safety Kim Royston. ''Myself, I'll never doubt an offense for doing something to us. It's our job to get stops.''

Said center Ryan Wynn: ''We went home without the Axe. The only thing that matters to me is the Axe.'' Royston is the only Gophers player on the roster who has enjoyed a victory in this rivalry, but that's because he began his career at Wisconsin before transferring for his final two seasons of eligibility.

''They're not going to take this game lightly. I don't care what our record is or what their record is,'' Royston said.

The Badgers (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) got back on track with a big win over Purdue last week, following consecutive crushing losses on last-second touchdown passes by Michigan State and Ohio State. They can still make the Big Ten championship game by winning their last three games and having either Nebraska or Ohio State beat Leaders Division leader Penn State over the next two Saturdays.

They can't get there unless they take care of Minnesota first. The Badgers were 27-point favorites this week, a rarity for a conference road game but a sign of how far apart these programs are in talent level and recent accomplishments. Though they're expected to win, the traditional parading of the trophy around the field and pretending to chop down the goal post on their rival's home field wouldn't be any less sweet.

''It's like something you dreamed of,'' Konz said. ''It's something you work hard for, and once you have it it's your moment for all time.''

Minnesota freshman wide receiver Devin Crawford-Tufts was offered a scholarship by the Badgers, but the Edina High School star had an easy decision to stay in the Twin Cities area and play for his hometown team. He smiled when asked about his feelings about this rivalry.

''Ah, I hate Wisconsin. I always have. The Packers, the Badgers, everybody,'' Crawford-Tufts said.

He, too, took a moment to dream this week about winning the game.

''It'd probably be the greatest thing that's ever happened to me,'' Crawford-Tufts said.

The Gophers (2-7, 1-4) at least have the confidence to compete with the Badgers. They came back to beat Iowa two weeks ago and nearly upset Michigan State on the road last week.

''We'll just try to give them a 60-minute game and hopefully be around in the fourth quarter,'' Royston said, ''and may the best man win.''


Gopher Illustrated Top Stories