When the Gophers players heard three weeks ago they wouldn't face Wisconsin in 2020, the game they all circle, the rivalry matchup where wins are sweeter and losses are crushing, they were devastated.

It was a wasted chance to match up with one of the perennial powerhouses in the West, the team that ended the Gophers' bid for the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl last season. All from a significant COVID-19 outbreak on the Gophers that spread to 49 cases.

Yet both teams held on to a shred of hope that this wouldn't be just the second time in 130 years without a contest for Paul Bunyan's Axe.

"The battle for the Axe," cornerback Phil Howard said, "that'll never die down. That will never get old."

The Big Ten agreed, rescheduling the game for Saturday as the conference finale for both teams. It was a special exception, with the Dec. 19 slate of "Championship Week" games initially planned as an East vs. West showdown based on the standings.

But just as the conference reneged on its rules to allow Ohio State to face Northwestern in the title game, it showed flexibility for some of these beloved rivalries, including Purdue vs. Indiana, which fell off the schedule this past weekend because of COVID-19 issues at Indiana. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said he and athletic director Mark Coyle had lobbied the Big Ten to reschedule Wisconsin, something they knew the Badgers supported as well.

Both Wisconsin and the Gophers have weathered two-week pauses from COVID-19 at some point this season. But the reinstated game could still be in jeopardy. Fleck said the Gophers' 24-17 victory at Nebraska on Saturday was very much on the precipice of cancellation because of lack of players.

The team missed 33 players at Nebraska from injuries and 23 positive COVID-19 tests amid the outbreak. It's unlikely a majority of those will return for the trip to Wisconsin. Big Ten policy mandates a 21-day sit-out for any positive tests.

Even with that disadvantage, the Gophers overcame the Cornhuskers as road underdogs. And they will have to catch that lightning a second time at Wisconsin if they want a chance to continue their season.

CBS Sports bowl analyst Jerry Palm said the Gophers likely would need four wins to make the postseason. That's in reach for the 3-3 Gophers, though Palm has the 2-3 Badgers in his projection for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, which likely would be the Gophers' option.

In 2019, a 38-17 loss to Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium ended the Gophers' shot at a Big Ten West title and possibly even a College Football Playoff appearance if they could have upset Ohio State in the conference championship. That was all revenge from the Gophers' 2018 triumph at Camp Randall, where a 37-15 victory halted Wisconsin's 14-year win streak in the rivalry and marked the first Gophers win in Wisconsin since 1994.

Badgers linebacker Jack Sanborn explained ahead of the originally scheduled Gophers game that his team understands the importance of this rivalry.

"After being in that locker room, seeing the seniors just devastated, just the reaction from the team," he said. "… My first kind of feeling of this rivalry was just the lowest of lows here at Wisconsin. So I've seen both ends of the spectrum. Obviously last year, getting the Axe back, you see how much it means to the players, the coaches, the team, the program and the state."

Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @theothermegryan E-mail: megan.ryan@startribune.com