MINNEAPOLIS – One game does not make or break a season, a message Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst delivered to the media during his weekly Monday press conference, but a loss certainly can create a sting that can be felt for a considerable length of time.
Wisconsin players said they can get over last Saturday’s 13-7 loss to Northwestern on the controversial non-catch by sophomore receiver Jazz Peavy. The loss to Iowa might be a different story considering the constant reminder they have on a daily basis of their shortcomings in a 10-6 loss Oct.3.
The Badgers have three trophy cases they pass every time they enter their locker room. One contains the Freedom Trophy, their prize for their last-second 23-21 victory at Nebraska Oct.10. The case where the Heartland Trophy has rested since 2010 is now empty, as the bronze bull now sits in Iowa City.
Having won nine straight trophy games entering this year, Wisconsin now knows the sting of an empty trophy case, something the University of Minnesota has experienced the last 11 years watching the Badgers parade around Paul Bunyan’s Axe following their triumph.
“That Axe has been in the trophy case ever since that new locker room’s been built,” said senior receiver Alex Erickson. “You look at it every single day … It’s something that, it means a lot to us, and we’re going to do everything in our power to keep that Axe.”
It might require an extraordinary effort for Wisconsin (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten), which will go into this afternoon matchup at TCF Bank Stadium against a Minnesota team playing with momentum. After losing four straight conference games, the Gophers (5-6, 2-5) delivered an impressive 32-23 home victory over Illinois last week and immediately turned their attention to getting the elusive Axe.
“Here’s the thing with the Axe, even with Coach (Jerry) Kill we put an awful lot of work into it and that’s the one trophy he didn’t get,” said Minnesota Coach Tracy Claeys, who took over for Kill Oct.28. “We are going to put as much into this as we can because what a great way to reward him if we could get that Axe.”
Stories of Wisconsin player’s favorite Axe memories were plentiful this week. Chryst talked about going to the rivalry games as a kid with his dad while senior Michael Caputo talked about the 2013 game when he was a redshirt sophomore; a contest UW won 20-7 in Minneapolis with temperatures being a balmy 18 degrees at kickoff.
“That was the first time I was a part of getting the axe,” said Caputo, who said he got educated of the rivalry’s history “pretty quick” after coming to the program from Pennsylvania. “It’s a big deal. I truly believe it’s a big game … It’s a sense of pride for both Universities. It’s fun to play for."
And considering this crop of Minnesota players have no memories to share, it put things in perspective how dominate the Badgers have been, something the Gophers would love to change.
Minnesota has to win to get back to .500 and guarantee itself a postseason bowl game for the fourth straight season. Wisconsin extended its record for being bowl eligible to 14 straight seasons on Oct.24 and is simply fighting for the best matchup possible.
Acknowledging the challenges the Gophers present, Caputo said the mentality Wisconsin has to have is that the Axe “belongs to us.”
A win today wouldn’t define a regular season that will end without Wisconsin beating a team currently with a winning record or erase the fact that UW was two plays from the 1-yard line away from being unbeaten in Big Ten play.
It would, however, prevent another trophy case from being emptied. At this point, that’s about as good as they could hope for.
“Records don't matter when you're getting ready to play someone,” said Chryst. “What matters is the tape. You throw the tape on and you know where and why they're a good team and you know the challenges that they present to you, whether it's individual matchups or offense and defense and special teams.
“Our players know. They've played against these guys … We know what a good team they are, and I don't think anyone starts with the record. We've all been in this enough that the record doesn't mean anything anyways. It's who is going to be the best team in that stadium on that day.”