The Wisconsin football team was looking forward to getting a little taste of the good old days this week against the Gophers, thanks to a 72-year-old trophy.
“It feels good getting to a game like this,” Wisconsin senior defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk said Monday. “This season has been different.”
Then came news Tuesday that brought the Badgers more of the same.
Saturday’s battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe at Camp Randall Stadium was canceled Tuesday because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the Gophers. This is 18th-ranked Wisconsin’s third cancellation in this pandemic-shortened Big Ten football season. That seemingly means the Badgers’ chances of playing for the Big Ten championship have been wiped out as well.
Because the Big Ten is playing an eight-game regular season over eight weeks and is not making up games that are called off, Wisconsin — a team that entered the season with national title hopes — will only be able to play at most five regular-season games. The conference determined the minimum number of games played to still be eligible for the title is six, unless the average number of games for the whole conference drops below six.
That would be possible if cancellations continue to wipe out games, but even then, Wisconsin’s 17-7 loss at Northwestern last weekend means the Badgers also would have to finish ahead of the 5-0 Wildcats to win the Big Ten West.
“First and foremost I hope that everyone in the Minnesota football program is safe and healthy and those affected make a complete recovery,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said in a statement released by the team. “It goes without saying that we are disappointed in not being able to play this weekend. This is a great rivalry that is exciting for players and fans on both sides. We will continue to practice this week and turn our attention to getting ready for our next game, against Indiana on Dec. 5.”
Besides the title implications to the Badgers, they also will be denied a chance to play host to their oldest rival for the Axe, a trophy Wisconsin reclaimed a year ago after losing at home to the Gophers in 2018. They were looking forward to the opportunity.
“Coming into the stadium [Monday morning], we got our traditional Axe Week things going on in the locker room, and stuff up on the video boards,” Loudermilk said. “That kind of makes it feel a little more normal, a little more like last year. Just throwing COVID out the window for a little bit when we’re in the stadium.”
Wisconsin opened the season with a 45-7 dismantling of Illinois on Oct. 23, then canceled its next two games after a coronavirus outbreak. At one point, the Badgers had 27 active cases, with Chryst, quarterback Graham Mertz and running back Garrett Groshek among those who tested positive. The Badgers paused team activities Oct. 28 and did not resume until Nov. 6.
They returned in top form, crushing Michigan 49-11 when they returned to play on Nov. 14. But against Northwestern, the Badgers wilted. They committed five turnovers, including three interceptions by Mertz, and the offense stalled with top receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor unavailable to play.
“There were a bunch of reads where I could have worked through and made the throw, and the receiver was open,” Mertz said Monday. “This will be a great week to focus on timing and footwork. That’s an easy fix. I’m confident this week will be a lot better.”
Instead, this week will be another one for the Badgers to sit out.
Staff writer Rachel Blount contributed to this report.