football-ax_MMfile

The Badgers took the axe back to Madison in 2011 for the eighth-straight time after a 42-13 win at TCF Bank Stadium.[/media-credit]

The place: the Metrodome. The date: Oct. 15, 2005.

With the Gophers lining up for the punt, the Badgers, down 31-34 with just 38 seconds remaining in the game, send an all-out block. Minnesota’s punter, Justin Kucek, his back leg near the goal line, fumbles the snap and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Casillas gets his hand on the punt. Ben Strickland, now the Badgers’ secondary coach, gets his hands on the ball in the end zone, giving Wisconsin a thrilling 38-34 win in Barry Alvarez’s final year as the program’s head coach. 

I personally remember that game, or rather, that blocked punt call, like it was yesterday. My family and I were in the car traveling back from Milwaukee – or maybe it was La Crosse (I guess my memory is a bit faded) – and Matt Lepay made that famous call, “The Badgers block the punt and they take the lead!” And then the car became full of screams like a Mel Gibson war cry in “Braveheart.” Seriously, I think my dad almost swerved into a nearby ditch.

Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor remembers that game as well. It was his favorite memory of the rivalry growing up as a kid watching the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. A local product from Ashwaubenon, Wis. – a Green Bay suburb for anyone not familiar with the greatest state on earth and its geography – Taylor grew up watching the Badgers and Gophers battle it out, another reason this rivalry game always has that added significance.

If you’re from either one of these states, you’ve grown up watching the Badgers and the Gophers play each other every year in various sports. But nowhere has it been more competitive than on the football field. With the first meeting dating back to 1890 – a 63-0 triumph for the Gophers – Wisconsin and Minnesota have played each other a resounding 121 times, the most of any rivalry in college football. Paul Bunyan’s Axe, one of the most recognizable rivalry trophies in college sports, stands proudly adorned with its handle etched with the score from each game, each face of the axe painted a different color to represent each school.

Sure, the rivalry has been a bit lopsided lately since that memorable blocked punt in the Metrodome. In 2010 and 2011, the combined scores of the games read Wisconsin 83, Minnesota 36. And yes, since 1990, the Badgers own the series at 17-5 – including a current eight-game winning streak dating back to 2004. But that doesn’t detract from what this rivalry has been like in the past. The Gophers haven’t bested the Badgers since 2003 in Minneapolis, but from 2007-09 the games were decided by an average of one score or less. And history has been in flux throughout the decades of the rivalry, as is reflected in the overall series record, which shows a 58-55 Gopher advantage.

There’s reason to believe that, in the near future – if not this weekend – the Border Battle meeting will be much more competitive than in the last two years. One of these is Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill. I had the privilege of interviewing Kill on the radio at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago this summer with WSUM Sports Director Chris Vosters. He certainly left an impression on me, as he has with many others. Kill came off as intelligent, well-spoken and as possessing every other good characteristic a human being can have.

I’m not just giving Kill praise as a coach based on a first impression. He has turned around programs throughout his coaching career. The Gophers’ head coach has turned around three sub-.500 teams he took over to a winning record in three years or fewer in his coaching career. One of the programs that experienced such success under Kill’s control was Northern Illinois. Taking over a NIU program that was 2-10 under then-head coach Joe Novak in 2007, Kill led the Huskies to a 10-3 record by 2010.

Wisconsin’s standout junior linebacker Chris Borland was quick to give Kill his praise Wednesday night, saying this Gopher team he’s watched on film looks to be the best squad the program has had since 2009.

“Coach Kill, we played him when he was at Northern Illinois and now twice since he’s been at Minnesota, and he’s a great coach,” Borland said. “So there’s no doubt in my mind they’ll be ready to play.”

And the change is already noticeable. 

Just a year ago, Kill and the Gophers finished 3-9. This year, Kill’s squad already has more wins, with a 4-2 record. Granted, all four wins came in nonconference play, but Minnesota has played tough football against arguably two of the better conference teams in the Legends Division in Iowa and Northwestern. For anyone who watched the Minnesota-Northwestern game, it’s clear the Gophers shot themselves in the foot. They outgained the Wildcats 327-275 on offense but turned the ball over three times.

But you don’t need to tell this Wisconsin team to be wary of its geographical adversaries. Even if the Gophers came in without a win, the team would be taking the same approach, prepare like hell and come out with the same intensity as always. But the point remains: The levelness of the competition in the Border Battle is heating up once again.

“It doesn’t matter what the records are, who’s good and who’s not,” Taylor said. “They’re going to be hyped, we’re going to be hyped and it’s going to be a physical game. I’ve played the past three years against them and it’s always been a physical game, you always expect the best.”

Nick is a fifth-year senior majoring in English and history. Catch Nick on WSUM’s “The Badger Herald Sports Hour” Sundays from 4-5 p.m. and “The Student Section” Mondays from 4-6 p.m. Email him at [email protected] or send him a tweet @NickKorger