For the Wisconsin Badgers (4-1) and Minnesota Golden Gophers (1-4), this isn’t just Axe Week – it’s desperation week.
The border rivals will meet for the 120th time to battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, and to no one’s surprise, there is a lot on the line.
“I guess you could put it desperately,” junior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. “It’s our biggest rivalry and it doesn’t matter what their record is, we’re going to be ready to play them.”
Wisconsin is coming off a disappointing road loss to Michigan State, while Minnesota hopes to find something to build on after a heartbreaking one-point loss to Northwestern at home.
Tim Brewster’s seat is getting hotter with every defeat, but a win in a trophy game would go a long way in potentially securing his job as UM head coach. Bret Bielema and the No. 20 Badgers, on the other hand, cannot afford a second consecutive loss to open conference play if they plan on contending for a Big Ten title, especially with Ohio State and Iowa looming in the coming weeks.
“We have to win this game,” Butrym said.
Winning has been a common trend for the Badgers in this annual matchup. UW has won the last six games against Minnesota, most recently a 31-28 thriller in Minneapolis, but there is plenty of mutual respect between the two rivals.
“I expect them to come in here as hungry and as eager to be part of success as anybody that we’ve faced to this point,” head coach Bret Bielema said Monday. “They’re going to come in and know it’s a rivalry game, know that it’s homecoming here, and they’ll have all those things working on their behalf for motivation.”
The Badgers may be currently dominating the series in the win column, but the games have always been tight, unpredictable affairs.
“Minnesota is 1-4, but they’re hungry and this is their Superbowl,” senior captain Jay Valai said. “We’re playing the same way.”
Valai and the rest of the UW defense will be staring down a familiar face as Gopher quarterback Adam Weber prepares to take on the Badgers for the fourth and final time.
Any signal caller with that kind of experience poses a potential threat to a defense.
“Adam is a really good quarterback and he’s a smart player,” Butrym said. “I know him personally and he’s a good guy, a really tough competitor.”
The Gophers have transitioned to a pro-style offense that features a power running game headlined by junior tailback Duane Bennett. As opposed to the spread attack UM featured in years past, the Gophers plan on bringing a physical run-first gameplan to Madison this time around.
“They have tried to focus on running the ball a lot more this year, so we need to stop the run,” junior defensive end J.J. Watt said.
Offensively, the Badgers are looking to rebound from a lackluster performance in East Lansing. The UW passing game never got in sync, and running back John Clay was held in check as the Michigan State defense stood tall.
With that loss still fresh in their minds, the Badger offense is looking forward to proving it is a more potent unit Saturday.
“We went over and did our best and we still came up short, so it always kind of puts a little extra fire in you,” center Pete Konz said. “Especially when it’s Minnesota, one of the oldest rivalries in the whole nation, for the Axe, for bragging rights, it’s always just extra motive, why you want to skip school and stick around the football offices a little more.”
The Gopher defense has been a glaring weakness so far this season, ranking last in the Big Ten in scoring defense by allowing over 30 points a game.
UW’s potent rushing game should be salivating as well, as the Gophers are second-to-last in the conference against the run, with opponents averaging over 185 yards on the ground.
Ultimately, every player suiting up Saturday understands the significance of the battle that’s going to take place tomorrow.
In-state players like Konz have grown up watching UW-UM rivalries and the sophomore knows how special it is to participate in an emotional border rivalry.
“It just means so much to a lot of people. Even if there’s just one game on the schedule, this is the one I always hear about,” Konz said. “It’s not, ‘oh, you guys are going to play a big night game,’ it’s, ‘are you ready for Minnesota?’”
UW has gotten used to keeping the axe in their locker room and while lifting the trophy is exhilarating, Valai, who has always had the axe in his possession as a Badger, suggested keeping it away from the Gophers is just as meaningful.
“We don’t want anyone to come on our sideline and have that feeling,” Valai said. “We don’t want to go out like that.”