IOWA CITY, Iowa - As Wisconsin’s players and coaches sat down for their pregame meal Saturday morning, the big screen television at the center of the room was switched to the football game in Lincoln.
It is customary for the Badgers to have something on in the background to keep the mood relaxed, but unusual for the television to be playing something that had tremendous meaning for the program.
Wisconsin knew that if they took care of business against Iowa and Minnesota lost to Nebraska, the Badgers would represent their division in the conference title game for the third time in game’s four year history, making the final home game purely about pride.
That didn’t set well with senior linebacker Marcus Trotter, all the more reason why he was surprisingly pleased Minnesota erased a 14-point deficit to win at then-No.21 Nebraska for the first time since 1960.
“What better way to finish out (my) senior season against Minnesota for representing the team for the Big Ten championship,” said Trotter following UW’s 26-24 victory. “It’s going to be a big game.”
“Big” doesn’t begin to describe the matchup between No.14 Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) and No.22 Minnesota (8-3, 5-2) Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium, a defacto play-in game to represent the Big Ten West Division title and play No.7 Ohio State in Indianapolis Dec.6.
Instead of using “big,” the word “rarity” might be better suited. Wisconsin has won 10 straight games between the two long running rivals (the longest by either team in the series), have won 17 out of 19 and haven’t lost at home to its neighbors to the north since 1994.
The Gophers haven’t won a Big Ten title since 1967 while the Badgers are going for their fourth in five seasons. The last time Wisconsin-Minnesota meant something in the scope of the conference, No.3 Wisconsin beat No.5 Minnesota, 14-9, in the 1962 regular season finale to secure the Big Ten Conference championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl.
To put that in perspective, Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill was 14 months old and UW’s Gary Andersen was two years away from being born.
“It’s pretty crazy; Rivalry game, it’s all on the line for going to the championship game, it’s a special time,” said Andersen. “It’s a special moment. These kids have worked so hard to get to this spot, and Minnesota has to. We’re all going to put our best foot forward for a week, work like crazy on both sides and away we go.”
Both teams picked themselves off the heap at one point to enhance the rivalry’s latest chapter. Minnesota shook off a road loss to hapless Illinois to pound rival Iowa the following week, making this year’s Gophers team the first to win rivalry games against the Hawkeyes and Michigan in the same year since 1967. The Gophers ended that season with the axe, too.
Wisconsin lost at Northwestern in the conference opener but retooled its offense to the current two quarterback system and saw its defense rise to the number one unit in the country, holding five of its last six opponents under 300 yards of total offense and three under 200.
“We’re doing the right things to put ourselves to be in position to be a great team and to play in the big times games,” said safety Michael Caputo. “(Iowa) was a big game, we got the ‘w’ and next week will be (another big game).”
Above all, Wisconsin finds itself in position for a division title because of its running back. Having scored a pair of touchdowns in each game on the winning streak and rushed for at least 120 yards for the ninth straight game, Melvin Gordon needs one yard to break Ron Dayne’s single season school rushing record.
He’s more concerned, however, with winning a championship, one of his main goals in returning for his junior season. He can accomplish that goal and another one this weekend, send the program’s seniors on a winning note after failing to do so last year.
“We didn’t send our seniors out on senior day the correct way against Penn State last year,” said Gordon, referring to the 31-24 loss. “That kind of hurt me and stuck with me for a while. Now it’s Minnesota, it’s our rivalry game and everything in on the line, I tell you, we’re going to give them our all.”