For the first time in several years, the Wisconsin-Minnesota football game will be a highly anticipated matchup. The battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe will take place Saturday in Minneapolis at 3:30 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN.
In recent seasons, Wisconsin has dominated Minnesota in the annual meeting of college football’s oldest rivalry. The Badgers have won nine in a row in the series, and 16 of the past 18. However, the Golden Gophers have the all-time advantage, 58-56-8.
While the game has been relatively uncompetitive recently, that is not expected to be the case this year. No. 19 Wisconsin is 8-2 and itching to get into BCS Bowl consideration. No. 25 Minnesota is also 8-2 and playing inspired football under the tutelage of head coach Jerry Kill, whose battle with seizures has been well documented.
Just like the Badgers, the Gophers are a running team. Injuries to opening day starter Donnell Kirkwood and his replacement Rodrick Williams have hurt the backfield, but David Cobb has filled in admirably. Cobb has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the past four games.
Then there’s the running threat from each of the Gophers’ quarterbacks. Philip Nelson is the primary signal caller, but Mitch Leidner occasionally replaces him. Leidner ran for four touchdowns in a September win against San Jose State, but his role has diminished since. He did not play last week against Penn State.
Nelson should see the bulk of the snaps Saturday. Either way, whoever is under center will likely just be handing the ball off or running it himself. Minnesota is 118th in the nation among 123 schools in passing attempts. Conversely, Wisconsin is 109th.
Temperatures for Saturday are expected to be in the teens. With both teams emphasizing the run, this game has all the makings of old school Big Ten football. Call it a rivalry renewed.
It began 123 years ago in 1890, and since then has only skipped one year. That was in 1906, when, according to ESPN, President Roosevelt suspended several rivalries due to safety concerns at a time when player deaths were relatively common.
Today, the game is known for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, a trophy created in 1948. But the series actually started with a different reward—the Slab of Bacon. The Slab began in 1930 and lasted until 1943, when it was “lost.” It was later found in a Camp Randall storage closet in 1994, with scores printed on it through 1970.
Regardless of what trophy the teams are playing for, the game has seen its fair share of notable performances. In 1928, Hall of Fame running back Bronko Nagurski led Minnesota to a 6-0 win, recording the game’s only touchdown and intercepting a late pass. Nagurski did all this wearing a steel corset to protect cracked vertebrae. Things were a little different back then.
While nobody will be playing with cracked vertebrae Saturday, the game will finally return to relevance. Nothing is better for a time-honored rivalry than two teams playing for more than just bragging rights.