In Blake Cashman’s view, the prize at stake is a bit of a mystery. He knows it exists, he’s seen it and he knows its importance. But he’s never touched it.
“It’s everything. It’s what everybody talks about all year,” Cashman said. “I can’t even remember the Gophers ever having it, I’m so young.”
It, of course, is Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the trophy that goes to the winner of the Minnesota-Wisconsin football game. And the fact that Cashman, a 22-year-old senior linebacker for the Gophers, can’t recall the Axe being possessed by the Maroon and Gold isn’t shocking. He was 7 years old the last time the Gophers beat the Badgers, in 2003.
On Saturday afternoon, the Gophers will try to end the Badgers’ 14-year stranglehold on the series and bring the Axe back to Minneapolis. That won’t be easy, because Minnesota hasn’t won at Camp Randall Stadium since 1994, when a Gophers team that was a three-touchdown underdog stunned Wisconsin 17-14. Cashman wasn’t even born when that upset happened, but the trophy’s value isn’t lost on him.
“It would be very exciting because it’s something we haven’t done here in a very long time,” Cashman said.
Along with possession of the Axe, a victory would earn bowl eligibility for the Gophers (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) and an improvement by at least one victory in coach P.J. Fleck’s second year at Minnesota. Fleck sees having such a chance as a step in his team’s maturation.
“If we’re ready to go to a bowl game, we’ll go to a bowl game. If we’re not ready to do it, we won’t,” Fleck said during his WCCO Radio appearance on Sunday. “… If we’re ready, it would be tremendous. Obviously, everybody wants to do it. But wanting to do it and going to do it are two different things.”
The Gophers had their first crack at gaining bowl eligibility Saturday, but they lost 24-14 to No. 24 Northwestern. Too many mistakes in a tight game — three turnovers being most prominent — showed that Fleck’s team still is seeking that elusive consistency to be successful.
That was especially apparent with Minnesota’s offense, which reached the Northwestern 39-yard line or better six times but came up scoreless on four of them. Freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan had a rough beginning, throwing interceptions on the team’s second and third possessions, though one was on a ball tipped multiple times.
“I’ve got to play better, 100 percent, no question about it,” Morgan said after the game. “There’s a lot of things we’ve got to do better.”
The Gophers need that to happen Saturday at Wisconsin against a Badgers team that hasn’t lived up to preseason expectations. Wisconsin (7-4, 5-3) had lost three of its previous five games before beating Purdue 47-44 in triple overtime Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind. Running back Jonathan Taylor powered the victory by rushing for 321 yards and three touchdowns. The Badgers were without starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who has missed three of the past four games because of a concussion. Sophomore Jack Coan has started in his place and passed for two TDs at Purdue.
With Cashman playing a lead role — he made a career-high 20 tackles against Northwestern — the Gophers defense has improved since Joe Rossi replaced fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith on an interim basis. Minnesota held Purdue to 233 yards on Nov. 10 and limited Northwestern to 325. That defense will need a similar showing to win at Wisconsin.
Cashman can envision what ending that long drought against the Badgers would mean.
“I’ll definitely sleep better at night knowing that I went out my senior year with the Axe and getting bowl eligibility and being able to spend more time with all our teammates and our coaching staff,” he said. “I know myself and the rest of the seniors aren’t ready to end the season early. We want one more.”
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib E-mail: rjohnson@startribune.