Jack Sanborn has gotten used to the constant gyrations this season, navigating the abrupt shifts and recalibrations required of a football team trying to play through a pandemic. The Wisconsin linebacker wasn't demoralized by an injury to the starting quarterback, or the rash of positive tests that shut down team activities for 13 days, or the cancellation of two of the Badgers' first three games.
He had to work a little harder to absorb another blow. On Nov. 24, with the Gophers in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, the plug was pulled on their trip to Wisconsin to play for Paul Bunyan's Axe.
"We were all excited to play them," Sanborn said. "To get that game canceled, it crushed us. A lot of us were a little upset because that's the big one, Wisconsin vs. Minnesota."
After maintaining a positive outlook through all those other setbacks, Sanborn hoped the rivalry would somehow go on. No wonder it felt like such a gift when the game was rescheduled for Saturday, a joyful late addition to a season defined by subtraction.
The Badgers (2-3) still have plenty of problems to solve if they want to keep the Axe in Madison. They have lost their past three games, scoring a total of 20 points after racking up 94 in their two victories.
Quarterback Jack Coan, felled by a foot injury just before the season opener, still has not played, while redshirt freshman Graham Mertz has been uneven after recovering from COVID-19.
Wisconsin continues to wrestle with injuries and illnesses that have kept its lineup in flux. The losing streak dropped it out of the Top 25, a steep fall from the No. 9 ranking the Badgers held on Oct. 25.
Beating their fiercest rival for the Axe, though, would go a long way toward soothing the disappointments of a bumpy season.
"This year has brought a lot of adversity, a lot of not knowing what's in the future or what's going to happen," said Sanborn, part of a Badgers defense that yields an FBS-best 251 yards per game. "Once that game got canceled, we were on to the next week. But I think a lot of us were still hoping that we'd get this opportunity.
"We all know what the Axe means, for not only the football program but for the school and the state, for both us and Minnesota. We know all the importance that brings. … Guys are pumped to be able to play that game this year."
Mertz called the regular-season finale "a great chance to respond" after three lackluster performances by the Badgers offense. In his first two starts, he threw for seven touchdowns without an interception. Mertz has thrown five interceptions and only one touchdown pass in three games since then.
The Badgers' run game was hampered in last week's 28-7 loss at Iowa when running back Jalen Berger, who leads Wisconsin with 89 rushing yards per game, sat out. Berger, a freshman, reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 and is not on the depth chart for Saturday's game. Receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor also missed last week's game because of injuries; Davis has played just two games this season, while Pryor has appeared in three.
Mertz said he is healthy now after the coronavirus "hit me like a truck." He is looking to be more efficient in third-down situations and to get the offense back on track despite the roster instability.
"We've got guys learning, and this is part of it," he said. "You've got to go through that struggle to truly learn from it. This would be a great week to get everything going."
In his latest predictions, CBS Sports bowl analyst Jerry Palm has the Badgers facing TCU in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 26. Wisconsin has appeared in a bowl game in each of the past 18 years, the longest active streak in the Big Ten.
Coach Paul Chryst said he hasn't spoken with his players about a possible bowl invitation. In a season in which things change quickly, they are thinking only about Saturday, and about holding on to the Axe.
"You want to finish out [the regular season] right first," Chryst said. "This game is a meaningful game. Playing a meaningful game, that's enough motivation.''