Wisconsin has dominated the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe for 22 years, going 18-4 against Minnesota, but when it comes to rivalries, this is still The Big One for the Gophers.
Several former Gophers are traveling back for Saturday’s game against No. 16 Wisconsin, including Rhys Lloyd, who hit a 35-yard field goal to beat the Badgers in 2003 and sprinted across the field to hoist the Axe.
That’s the last time Minnesota beat Wisconsin.
“The other day, someone told me it’s been 10 years,” Lloyd said. “I honestly felt old. I’m 31 and have three kids now. That was like a slap in the face.”
Wisconsin’s nine-game winning streak against the Gophers matches the longest in a rivalry that dates to 1890. Minnesota won nine in a row from 1933 to 1941.
The Gophers played their regular season finale against Wisconsin every year from 1944 to 1982. Longtime Minnesota fans still fume about 1962, when a controversial roughing the passer penalty against Bobby Bell cost the Gophers a Big Ten title.
But from 1983 to 2000, the Gophers concluded each regular season against Iowa. Former Gophers safety Justin Conzemius considered Iowa his team’s primary rival when he first got to the U, in 1991.
“It switched in ’93,” Conzemius said.
That was Barry Alvarez’s fourth season as Wisconsin’s head coach. The Badgers arrived at the Metrodome ranked No. 15 in the country with a 6-0 record.
Those Badgers loved to run the ball with Brent Moss and Terrell Fletcher, much as they do now with Melvin Gordon and James White.
Conzemius said Jim Wacker’s coaching staff decided the Gophers would do everything in their power to stop Wisconsin’s running game. It worked. Darrell Bevell passed for 423 yards, but threw five interceptions, and Minnesota won 28-21.
That was Wisconsin’s only loss in a season that ended with a Rose Bowl victory. One year later, the Gophers were 19-point underdogs at Wisconsin and came away with a 17-14 win. That Minnesota team finished 1-7 in the Big Ten.
“Of all my football memories, which go back to third grade, my greatest memory is chopping down the goalpost [with the Axe] at Camp Randall,” Conzemius said.
Since those back-to-back upsets, the Gophers’ only two wins in the series came under Glen Mason, in 2001 and 2003.
There have been a few close calls, of course. In 2005 — in a battle between the No. 22 and No. 23 teams in the country — the Gophers blew a 10-point lead in the final 3:27. Standing near Minnesota’s 5-yard line with 38 seconds remaining, Gophers punter Justin Kucek dropped a snap and then had his punt blocked. Ben Strickland pounced on it in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
Kucek was a redshirt freshman at the time but eventually became an All-Big Ten punter. These days, he’s a successful businessman in Florida.
“You realize that life is not always going to be perfect for you,” Kucek told the Star Tribune last year. “If it is, God bless you. … I don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t dropped that punt.”
There are all kinds of stories from a rivalry that has spanned 122 games, making it the most played in Division I-A football. Missouri and Kansas are right behind with 121 games.
The Big Ten recognizes the Axe’s significance. With the Gophers and Badgers both moving to the West division next year, they’ll square off in the regular season finale every year from 2014 to 2019 — at least.
“To me,” Conzemius said, “there’s nothing more important than beating Wisconsin.”
Big Ten short takes
• Michigan State can clinch the Legends Division title Saturday with a win at Northwestern, but if the Spartans lose that 11 a.m. game, the Gophers’ division title hopes will still be alive for their 2:30 p.m., kickoff against Wisconsin.
The Gophers actually would control their own destiny, since they close the regular season at Michigan State. The Spartans’ defense looked surprisingly vulnerable in last week’s 41-28 win at Nebraska.
•- To reach the BCS title game, Ohio State likely needs to finish undefeated and have someone knock off both Alabama and Baylor. Florida State already has passed its toughest tests, but Auburn could be dangerous for Alabama, and then the Crimson Tide would have to survive the SEC Title game.
Baylor still has to play at Oklahoma State and TCU before playing host to Texas in the regular season finale.
• Iowa isn’t enjoying the same national attention Minnesota is getting for its turnaround this season, but after finishing 4-8 last year, the Hawkeyes are 6-4. Their three Big Ten losses came to the conference’s top three teams – Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Iowa has the nation’s 12th-ranked scoring defense at 18.7 points per game. The Hawkeyes are favored to beat Michigan on Saturday and finish the regular season at Nebraska.
Big Ten power poll
1. Ohio State (10-0, 6-0): Running back Carlos Hyde is blossoming into a potential first-round draft pick.
2. Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1): Gophers coach Jerry Kill said Chris Borland might be the best linebacker in the country.
3. Michigan State (9-1, 6-0): Jeremy Lankford has reached the 100-yard rushing mark in five consecutive games.
4. Gophers (8-2, 4-2): Jerry Kill is 17-18 at Minnesota. A win over Wisconsin would move him back to .500.
5. Iowa (6-4, 3-3): Kevonte Martin-Manley averages 18.8 yards per punt return, ranking third in the nation.
6. Nebraska (7-3, 4-2): The Cornhuskers were competitive against Michigan State, but turnovers did them in.
7. Michigan (7-3, 3-3): The Wolverines have scored one touchdown in regulation over the past three games.
8. Penn State (6-4, 3-3): Allen Robinson in discussion with Bobby Engram as Penn State’s all-time best receiver.
9. Indiana (4-6, 2-4): The offense didn’t look near as potent last week without Tevin Coleman (sprained ankle).
10. Northwestern (4-6, 0-6): Rewriting the book of heartbreak losses. Michigan game was the latest chapter.
11. Illinois (3-7, 0-6): Playing Purdue this week gives Illinois a chance to snap its 20-game Big Ten losing streak.
12. Purdue (1-9, 0-6): Boilermakers have taken their lumps but finish the season with Illinois and Indiana.