MADISON - Safety Cedric Thompson had every reason to be proud about his team’s 2013 season. Minnesota had won eight games for the first time in a decade and appeared to turn a corner from a football program long in the Big Ten doldrums.
Now a senior and one of the leaders of Minnesota’s ball-hawking defense, Thompson isn’t afraid to say the Gophers left a lot of wins on the table.
“Every game we lost we lost because of ourselves,” he said. “We didn’t hold each other to a standard, and we’re accountable for all the mistakes that we did in practice. We have to hold each other accountable no matter what side of the ball you’re on or what your role is on the team, no matter what your job is.”
Winning big games haven’t been the problem this season, as No.22 Minnesota (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten) has beaten Iowa and Michigan for the first time in the same season since 1967 and won at Nebraska for the first time since 1960, making Saturday’s regular-season finale at long-time rival No.14 Wisconsin (2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network) for Paul Bunyan’s Axe and a spot in the Big Ten championship game.
The winner plays No.7 Ohio State Dec.6 and while the Gophers desperately want to win their first Big Ten title since ‘67, they want to break a decade of Wisconsin dominance even more.
“Wisconsin was the better team the last 10 years,” said Thompson. “There’s no argument. They’ve won it the last 10 years in a row, and hats off to them. But we’re doing everything we can to make sure they don’t win it again. It’s always going to be a rivalry. That’s number one on my list personally. I want Paul Bunyan’s Axe more than anything.”
The rivalry almost hit a boiling point after last season – a 20-7 UW victory in Minneapolis. Sticking with tradition of Wisconsin “chopping” down the goal posts, the Gophers’ players and coaches stood their ground in front of the goal posts in front of their student section after UW had “chopped” down the other one.
A brief scuffle took place and while no punches were thrown, it made UW coach Gary Andersen change how the Axe will presented to this year’s winner to prevent rising tensions moving forward. Instead of the Axe being staged behind the Wisconsin bench, it was be presented in the end zone, closest to the winning team’s locker room.
“Last year was unfortunate,” Andersen said. “I don't think (Minnesota coach Jerry) Kill and myself liked the way it went down and it ended a year ago. I don't think it is good for college football and I don't think it is good for our kids.
“Our kids handled it far from perfect. There's traditions, there's things that are important and then there's things that are over the top.”
Even those Vegas lists them as early 13-point underdogs, the Gophers haven’t let underdog status bother them under Kill, who continues to follow his blueprint of rebuilding programs. After going 1-10 in his first season at Southern Illinois, the Salukis won the first of three straight conference titles beginning in his third year.
At Northern Illinois, Kill went from 6-8 to 10-3 in the same time frame. A year ago, Minnesota was 5-1 before Kill – who suffers from epilepsy – suffered his fourth seizure in three years, forcing him to take a leave of absence.
With longtime defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys serving as interim head coach, Minnesota won four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time since 1973.
“It shows that we’re going to do whatever it takes to keep going to win,” said Thompson. “With Coach Kill’s illness, it’s definitely hard to see him go down at times, but at the end of the day we have to keep going. Even if he was up and somebody else was down, we have to keep going because we want to win. Even though he’s done, he wants us to keep giving everything we have while we’re out there.”
Minnesota’s passing game is fifth worst in the country (134.7 yards per game), but the Gophers are winning because of their running game (David Cobb is eighth nationally with 1,430 rushing yards) and a defense that feasts on turnovers.
The Gophers have 13 interceptions (by eight different players, two by Thompson) through 11 games, have a plus-11 turnover ratio and have scored 94 points off turnovers. That doesn’t include Briean Boddy-Calhoun wrestling the ball away from Nebraska’s De’Mornay Pierson-El just before the goal line on what would have been the go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes.
“Athletic defenses have the opportunity to get the ball out, and the next step is the opportunity to be able to catch it, or jump on it or however you got the opportunity to have the ball getting into position to be a turnover,” said Andersen. “They've done a tremendous job with that. They're physical. They do a nice job within their zone coverages, and in man coverage to be able to create everything from miscommunications or a quarterback not seeing things right to a tipped football to sacks that come out to stripping the ball, they've done a good job.”
Once the annual regular season finale from 1933-82, Wisconsin and Minnesota have only closed the regular season three times against one another since. The reconfiguration of the divisions has changed that, as Wisconsin and Minnesota will close the season against one another through 2019.
“Every team is beat up, it’s a grind, we’ve been through 11 hard games, but when you have a rivalry game like Wisconsin and Minnesota, it gives you a little extra chip on your shoulder and makes you forget about all the pain you’ve been through,” said Thompson. “You don’t feel anything in your body from the beating your body has taken through all games because it’s Wisconsin-Minnesota.”