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.