"In a rivalry game, if you don't ever win, it's not really a rivalry," said Gophers senior linebacker Mike Rallis.
The Gophers hold a slight edge in the series - 58-55-8 - that dates back to 1890, signifying the historic back-and-forth competitiveness between the two schools, but Wisconsin can match the longest winning streak by any team at nine when the two teams meet at Camp Randall Saturday morning.
Now only has Wisconsin beaten Minnesota eight straight seasons and have won 15 of the last 17 meetings between the two schools. Not since Nov. 8, 2003, has Minnesota beaten Wisconsin to claim Paul Bunyan's Axe.
The last time the Gophers bested the Badgers in Madison was Oct. 22, 1994, meaning many current Gophers players weren't even one year old and head coach Jerry Kill was in his first season as a head coach at Saginaw Valley State.
"It's a big game for us," Kill said of this weekend. "I don't think there's any question about that. It's been a long time, with where we are at in our program, with two losses back to back. You don't want to make that a habit. It comes at a time where our program needs to play well, we need to step up a little bit and certainly clean up some of the mistakes we've made over the last two weeks."
The mistakes have destroyed all the positive momentum Minnesota created winning its first four games for the first time since 2008. After winning at UNLV in triple overtime and beating Syracuse at home to average29.75 points per game through the nonconference slate, the problems now for the Gophers (4-2, 0-2 Big Ten) have been mostly self inflicted.
Although Kill acknowledges his team feeds off its defense, it's been suffering because of its offense, as Minnesota, despite holding Northwestern under 300 yards of total offense, lost 21-13 because the Gophers fumbled seven times, losing two, threw an interception and were whistled for nine penalties.
This comes one week after the Gophers turned the ball over four times in a 31-13 loss at Iowa. As a result, Minnesota hasn't scored above 17 points since September 15, and the Gophers aren't reflective of a team that ranks eighth nationally in defensive pass efficiency, 17th in total defense (313.2 ypg) and 30th in scoring defense (19.8).
"We can't turn over the football," said Kill. "We're not good enough to do that … We've got to clean a lot of things up before Saturday, that's for sure."
Minnesota has already struggled offensively through six weeks (61st in the country in rushing offense and 84th in passing offense); a trend that would likely continue should senior MarQueis Gray be unable to play.
Kill said on Tuesday that Gray was in a walking boot and said his quarterback was back to where he was during the bye week two weeks ago, which was not at full speed. Should Gray be out, sophomore Max Shortell would get the call, looking to improve from his three-interception performance against Iowa and his 9-for-19 passing performance against Northwestern.
"It's a couple steps forward and a couple steps back right now," said Kill of Gray, one of five offensive starters fighting injuries. "Certainly MarQuies has taken a step back right now."
One year ago, Wisconsin routed Minnesota, 42-13, in Minneapolis. Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson had just one incompletion in that game, a drop by wide receiver Nick Toon. In UW's 38-14 victory at Purdue last week, Wisconsin racked up 645 yards of total offense, the second-highest in school history.
"They are getting better and better each week as the weeks go by," said Kill of Wisconsin. "They've done what they are supposed to do. They've been very, very good on defense. In my opinion all year offensively, they've gotten better and better each week. They know who they are. They establish by running football and to me, they're doing the same things that have built the program from the ground up."
In a way, Kill has used the same philosophy at his four previous coaching stops, starting from scratch and building a program into a contender before leaving for the next challenge. It's the main reason Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema called Kill, "a phenomenal football coach" and recognized that the Gophers "were going to be better than a year ago."
But while there have been positives (no second-half points allowed by the defense vs. Iowa and Northwestern and more sacks and takeaways than at this time last year) the minus-seven turnover ratio have made every game, including this weekend's test, a harder challenge for Minnesota.
"We've got a big challenge ahead of us," said Kill. "I think we're doing some things as we move our program forward better, but we've got to cut down on all the mistakes that we're making."