This isn't a rivalry. It's more like an annual obligation with an outcome that's already ­predetermined.

Rivalries are meant to be competitive. Meant to have some suspense, some drama, some notion that either team could win any given meeting.

The best rivalries swing back-and-forth like tennis matches. Gophers-Badgers in football has become more one-sided than a snail racing a rabbit.

Like clockwork, the Gophers lost to their big brother again Saturday.

Wisconsin maintained possession of Paul Bunyan's Axe for a 12th consecutive season with a 31-21 victory at TCF Bank Stadium.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Even the postgame celebration with the Axe looks routine now. Not the raucous, rub-their-nose-in-it parade of ­victors like we've seen in the past.

The instant reaction is more subdued, probably because a dozen consecutive wins becomes old hat.

The Badgers could've just left the trophy back in Madison because the Gophers gave themselves little chance of winning the 125th meeting.

They couldn't stop the run in the first half. They turned the ball over five times. They dropped passes. They fumbled a kickoff out of bounds deep in their own territory.

Just a poor performance.

The Badgers became complacent in the second half, and the Gophers finally woke up, but it didn't really matter. Same old, same old.

Rather than build on last season's New Year's Day bowl game, the Gophers won only two Big Ten games and failed to reach bowl eligibility, the ultimate insult in this age of bowl game gluttony.

The finale should leave a foul taste because this is not one of the excellent Wisconsin teams of recent memory. The Badgers defense is legit, and they're well-coached, but they have had trouble running the ball all season and when is the last time that has been the case?

Wasn't a problem against the Gophers, who were booed off the field at halftime after giving up 199 yards rushing to the Big Ten's worst ­rushing offense.

Please spare me the obligatory reminder about how injuries hindered Tracy Claeys' defense. Yes, they played without their two starting defensive tackles and a primary backup at that position. That stings.

But the Badgers dealt with their own issues, as well. Their offensive line was so depleted that they started four redshirt freshmen. Four.

They also played without starting tailback Corey Clement, who was left home for disciplinary reasons.

So no one should complain about injuries or being shorthanded. ­Neither side was at full strength.

Injuries weren't to blame for their five turnovers, including four by quarterback Mitch Leidner on three interceptions and a fumble.

The Gophers' defensive effort in the first half was downright alarming.

The Badgers came to town ranked 104th nationally in rushing. In Big Ten games only, they averaged 109.6 yards on the ground, the lowest mark in the league.

Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave misfired so egregiously on the first offensive play — his pass went right to cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who returned the gift 16 yards for a TD — that Wisconsin's coaches probably gulped hard and decided to trust their running game behind a backup tailback and four freshmen linemen.

Smart decision. The Badgers carried the ball 62 times for 257 yards and four touchdowns. For comparison's sake, the Gophers ran 55 plays total.

Wisconsin more than doubled the Gophers in time of possession — 40 minutes, 35 seconds to 19:25.

The Gophers blew their chance to salvage something tangible from a disappointing season. A victory wouldn't have erased all that went wrong, but at least it would have been reason to celebrate.

Now they have their offseason to figure out how to avoid a similar fate next season. The emergence of some young players at key positions was encouraging, but the season viewed in totality feels like a step backward.

"I think we are moving in the right direction," Claeys said. "Obviously wins and loss wise, it's a step back. But I feel like we have good kids coming back. It's a heck of a lot better place today than when we got here."

Nobody will argue with that. But that doesn't make what happened this season any less disappointing.