No. 5 Wisconsin has Axe to grind with Minnesota

The Sports Xchange

November 21, 2017 at 9:37 pm.

Nov 18, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor (23) rushes with the football during the fourth quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium. Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 18, 2017; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor (23) rushes with the football during the fourth quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium. Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — With one game left in the regular season, No. 5 Wisconsin has its eyes on competing in the college football playoffs.

The Badgers (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) were No. 5 in the latest rankings from the selection committee and have Minnesota (5-6, 2-6) left Saturday to finish the regular season before a Big Ten title game appearance against No. 9 Ohio State.

With everything ahead of it, Wisconsin still has one focus this weekend in Minnesota: Holding on to Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

The Badgers have done a lot of chopping in recent years. They’ve won the trophy awarded to the winner of the annual Wisconsin-Gophers game for the past 13 years, the longest streak for either time in the long-time rivalry.

“The Axe is, in my opinion, our true rivalry,” Badgers senior tight end Troy Fumagalli told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It’s always fun. We always get Minnesota’s best game. The last couple years we were down early. We know it’s going to be a dogfight.”

Much is at stake for both teams, but the axe will be a big prize.

Saturday will be the 127th meeting, the most-played rivalry in the FBS. The rivalry dates to 1890 with the axe introduced in 1948. While the overall series is tied 59-59-8, the Badgers hold a 42-24-3 edge since the teams started playing for the axe.

Wisconsin has won 20 of the past 22 meetings.

“It is kind of surreal that we haven’t won in that long of a time,” Gophers senior cornerback Adekunle Ayinde said Tuesday. “But just the opportunity to play, and play such a good team, and have the opportunity to possibly beat them and what it can do for Minnesota and what it can do for this team’s culture is just big.”

A win could keep the Badgers — 11-0 for the first time in school history — on pace to possibly compete in the playoffs. Alabama, Miami, Clemson and Oklahoma are ahead of Wisconsin in the rankings, but Miami and Clemson will play each other in the ACC Championship Game, possibly opening a chance for the Badgers to jump to the top four and into a playoff spot.

Still, Wisconsin wants to win for the sake of the rivalry. It could lead the series for the first time.

“We know the history,” junior linebacker T.J. Edwards told the Journal Sentinel. “It is going to be fun. I think guys came out with a huge edge and ready to just get up there and play. I wish it was Saturday already.”

The Badgers are familiar with Minnesota and first-year coach P.J. Fleck, who guided Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl last year before losing to Wisconsin 24-16.

“I think you definitely see his effect and his input,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. “It looks like it’s a group that’s playing with energy, and they’re well-coached with good, challenging schemes.”

The Gophers need more than the axe. A win would make them bowl eligible in Fleck’s first season.

There’s an outside chance of Minnesota still qualifying for a bowl with five wins, but the prospects are looking gloomy as the season progressed. If there aren’t enough six-win teams to fill the bowls, the NCAA will use the Academic Progress Rate of five-win teams to fill any spots.

The Gophers are third in APR behind Air Force (4-7) and Duke (5-6).

“You don’t really have to talk too much to get (the rivalry), but there are a lot of other things that are on the line in terms of us and bowl eligibility still,” Fleck said Tuesday.

“But beating a team that’s undefeated, and then also the battle for the axe … I don’t think I have to inform everybody on that. And then to have the ability to stop somebody’s run to make it to the playoffs. So there is a lot.”

Minnesota could be short-handed against Wisconsin’s stout defense. The Badgers lead the nation in run defense (allowing 79.4 yards per game) and are No. 2 in total defense (246.4) and scoring defense (13.1 points per game).

The Gophers will be without leading receiver Tyler Johnson because of a broken hand, Fleck told KFXN-FM in Minnesota. Fleck also isn’t sure about the availability of two starters on the offensive line in left guard Garrison Wright and center Conner Olson. Jared Weyler, who was the top enter to start the season, is already out.

Fleck might have to turn to Quinn Oseland at guard and Bronson Dovich at center.

“We’re doing everything we can with Conner to get healthy, and Garrison,” Fleck said. “We’ll see what happens. If not, then, yes, those are the guys that will be playing.”