MADISON, Wis. – Five thousand, one hundred, thirty-two days. Or roughly 123,168 hours, if you prefer.
That's how long Wisconsin had held Paul Bunyan's Axe since winning it from the Gophers back on Nov. 6, 2004. And that's how long the Gophers and their fan base had to endure their neighbors from the east rubbing their noses in it.
But not this year.
The Axe is going back to the Twin Cities for the first time since the Gophers won it in 2003, after Minnesota's 37-15 victory over the Badgers in front of 74,038 on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
When the final seconds ticked off, the Gophers sprinted to the end zone and began the celebration with the Axe. They chopped that goalpost, then sprinted to the other end to whack that one in front of the Wisconsin marching band while it played "On Wisconsin!''
"I know this is a memory they'll remember the rest of their life,'' said Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, whose team ended Wisconsin's 14-year hold on the trophy that goes to the winner of the border rivalry. "When you hold the Axe, now you know why everybody wants it so much.''
Securing possession of the Axe came with a bonus, too. The Gophers (6-6, 3-6 Big Ten) earned bowl eligibility with their sixth victory in Fleck's second season on campus.
Led by Mohamed Ibrahim's tough rushing for 121 yards, a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown by Demetrius Douglas, three field goals by Emmit Carpenter and a defense that forced four turnovers, the Gophers won a conference road game for the first time under Fleck. Minnesota also beat Wisconsin (7-5, 5-4) at Camp Randall Stadium for the first time since 1994 and did so by scoring 24 points off takeaways.
They did it going away, too, skunking the Badgers 20-0 in the second half until Alex Hornibrook's touchdown pass to Danny Davis with 1:12 left.
"I might get a little emotional. This game means the absolute world to me,'' said Carpenter, a senior from Green Bay, Wis. "I'm not going to lie; I used to be a Badgers fan growing up.''
From the start, the Gophers showed this year would be much different from the 31-0 blanking they absorbed from Wisconsin last year, and the Badgers showed this wasn't their day.
On its first possession, Wisconsin drove to the Gophers 13 before usually reliable kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed a 31-yard field-goal attempt. The Gophers then drove 65 yards in 10 plays to take the lead on a 34-yard field goal by Carpenter.
Early in the second quarter, the Badgers could have swung momentum their way, but the Gophers defense stiffened. A targeting penalty and ejection of Gophers linebacker Blake Cashman on punt coverage put the Badgers at the Minnesota 39. But Coney Durr intercepted a Hornibrook pass and returned it 25 yards to the 41.
The Gophers cashed in fully, with Ibrahim racing 10 yards for a touchdown on fourth-and-1 for a 10-0 lead with 2:21 left in the half. Seth Green's 3-yard dive on fourth-and-1 from the 22 kept the drive alive.
The Gophers defense forced a three-and-out, and in a flash it was 17-0 when Douglas returned a punt 69 yards with 1:05 left in the half.
"That's the biggest play of the game,'' Fleck said.
Though the Badgers cut the lead to 17-7 on Hornibrook's 7-yard TD pass to tight end Jake Ferguson with 1 second left in the half, the Gophers had more than enough answers in the final 30 minutes.
On their first possession of the third quarter, the Badgers went for it on fourth-and-4 from the Minnesota 44, but Carter Coughlin pressured Hornibrook, who threw incomplete. The Gophers drove for a 23-yard field goal by Carpenter to make it 20-7. After Julian Huff, playing in place of Cashman, made a diving interception, Carpenter's 42-yard kick made it 23-7 with 1:02 left in the third.
The Gophers defense forced a three-and-out on the Badgers next possession, and the third quarter ended before the Badgers could punt. "Jump Around'' played as the stadium swayed, and the Gophers jumped around on their sideline, too. One quarter to go for the Axe.
Minnesota closed the deal by playing keepaway in the fourth quarter. The Gophers got the ball with 14:53 to play and drained 9:16 from the clock with a 15-play, 55-yard drive, as Ibrahim carried nine times for 31 yards. Though Carpenter missed a 28-yard field-goal attempt, the Badgers had only 5:37 with which to work.
"Mo was just driving his legs, getting those extra yards. It was critical,'' said quarterback Tanner Morgan, who was 9-for-16 for 124 yards. "Mo played a huge role in winning us this thing," Morgan added, tapping the Axe.
Two more Badgers turnovers led to two TD runs by Bryce Williams, boosting the lead to 37-7 and starting the party that was nearly 15 years in the making.
"We're very excited to have the Axe back in the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota,'' Fleck said. "It's coming back with us.''