The year was 1976, and Pat Nelson was a freshman fullback for Wisconsin, parading around Camp Randall Stadium with Paul Bunyan’s Axe after a 26-21 victory over the Gophers.
Now, 37 autumns later, Nelson hopes to get his hands on that Axe again. Only this time, he wants to swing it with his son — Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson.
“The other night, I talked to Philip, and we’re feeling pretty confident about this game,” Pat Nelson said. “I told him, when he gets that Axe, I’m coming down on that field, and we’re going to hold that thing together and take a lap. How wonderful would that be?”
Well, for starters it would be Minnesota’s first victory over Wisconsin since 2003. And it would give the Gophers their first five-game Big Ten winning streak since 1962.
Both teams are 8-2, but the Gophers are 16½-point underdogs at TCF Bank Stadium against a 16th-ranked Badgers outfit that Gophers coach Jerry Kill has called “the most underrated team in the country.”
To win, the Gophers need to slow Wisconsin’s prolific running game, and they need Nelson to weather the cold and keep a hot hand.
During the winning streak, the sophomore quarterback has zero turnovers and 10 touchdowns — seven passing and three rushing.
“He’s playing at a very high level right now, with a lot of confidence,” Kill said.
For much of Nelson’s life, his family figured his place in this rivalry would be much like his father’s. After college, Pat and Norma Nelson settled near Madison and started raising their children.
Pat is a mechanical engineer, and the family moved to Mankato in 2005, when he changed jobs. But they kept their season tickets at Camp Randall and made several trips back to Madison each year.
When Philip started putting up prolific passing numbers at Mankato West High School, the Badgers were definitely in the recruiting mix.
The family still gets a kick out of the photo from Philip’s 2010 recruiting trip to Wisconsin, the one in which he’s wearing the red jersey and red hat in the Badgers locker room, posing next to the Axe.
But the family kept an open mind during the recruiting process. Nelson’s father had been through a coaching change when he played for Wisconsin — from John Jardine to Dave McClain in 1978. The statistics on sports-reference.com show Pat Nelson getting one carry for 2 yards in 1977 and none after that.
“I kind of vowed that if Philip was given the opportunity to enter a Division I program, one of the prerequisites was that he wasn’t going to go to a team that had a staff that was tiptoeing on the line,” Pat Nelson said. “Because going through coaching changes is really tough.
“And that’s exactly why we ended up crossing Wisconsin off the list. Because [former Badgers offensive coordinator] Paul Chryst was out looking for a job during our recruitment.”
The Badgers signed another highly ranked quarterback from Nelson’s recruiting class — Bart Houston out of the football powerhouse at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif. He sits behind Joel Stave and Curt Phillips on the team’s depth chart.
After the 2011 season, Chryst took the head coaching job at Pittsburgh, taking three Badgers assistants with him. In all, then-Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema lost six assistant coaches that offseason, and one year later, Bielema left for Arkansas.
“So I kind of dodged a bullet there,” the younger Nelson said.
“It’s not like I ever really wanted to go to Wisconsin during my recruiting process because I knew I wanted Minnesota.
“But just looking back on it, that’s exactly what I didn’t want, to go into a situation where the coaches who recruited me ended up leaving.”
Landing in a stable place
Philip Nelson said his father was the first person in his family to “fall in love” with Kill’s staff. Besides the group’s track record for rebuilding programs, the chief reason was stability. Seven of Kill’s assistants have been with him for at least 13 years.
Nelson was one of the first members of the 2012 class to commit to Minnesota. A group including Maxx Williams, Mitch Leidner, Ben Lauer and Jonah Pirsig soon followed.
As fate would have it, Kill made the decision to pull Nelson’s redshirt last year after six games, just in time to play at Wisconsin. Nelson threw two touchdown passes but also threw two interceptions in a 38-13 loss.
Since then, Nelson has come a long away, and so has his supporting cast.
“Now I have about a year’s worth of games on me, and I know what to expect and what a victory takes in a game at the Division I level,” he said.
Nelson dealt with a hamstring injury last November, and the same injury bit him again this year in the season’s third game. The Gophers turned to Leidner, who earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors after rushing for four touchdowns against San Jose State.
Nelson returned for the Sept. 28 game against Iowa, and threw two interceptions in a disappointing 23-7 loss. Only later did he acknowledge his hamstring wasn’t fully healed.
Leidner started the next three games, but Nelson came off the bench to help the Gophers beat Northwestern and Nebraska, then started again in wins over Indiana and Penn State.
“I’ve learned you’ve got to be healthy in order to perform well,” Nelson said. “And it’s difficult to play in this offense and stay healthy the whole year. That’s why Mitch and I know that it’s important to have each other.
“I’m really thankful that it’s been a civil competition, as well. It’s not like there’s any hatred between us at all. I like our relationship. I think we make each other better, which is what it’s all about.”
For now, it’s Nelson’s offense again. With junior David Cobb reeling off four consecutive 100-yard games, the Gophers have been on quite a roll.
If they pull another upset Saturday, look down on the field, and you’ll see a father and son, holding that Axe, with the gold side of the blade held close to their hearts.