It’s been 12 long years since Barry Alvarez called timeout, hoping to freeze kicker Rhys Lloyd. A dozen tortured autumns for Gophers fans since Glen Mason added these pre-kick instructions for the England native: “Don’t forget the Axe.”
The date was Nov. 8, 2003. Kevin Garnett (25 points, 17 rebounds), Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell combined to keep the Miami Heat winless that night, and Kris Humphries was gearing up for his freshman hoops season with the Gophers.
Lloyd nailed that 35-yard field goal, sprinted to the Wisconsin sideline and yanked Paul Bunyan’s Axe from its case, to loud roars inside the Metrodome.
Rashad Still was a first-grader then. On Saturday, he’ll be at wide receiver for the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium, as they try to stop their 11-game losing streak to Wisconsin, the longest in the rivalry’s 124-year history.
This is Minnesota’s best chance to beat Wisconsin in six years, according to the point spread. The Badgers were favored by an average of 19.6 points in their previous six meetings, but this time the Gophers are 2.5-point underdogs.
A win would send the Gophers (5-6, 2-5 Big Ten) to a fourth consecutive bowl game, but coach Tracy Claeys knows that accomplishment would matter far less than the rivalry victory itself.
“To me, there is no comparison,” Claeys said. “No disrespect to the bowl, but that’s a side product to this. Because this Axe has been in play for a long time, and we haven’t had it for a while.”
Not since Nov. 6, 2004, to be exact, when Holy Angels grad John Stocco led a 24-point Wisconsin rout over Minnesota. That was four days after George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in the presidential election.
Minnesota’s 2005 loss to Wisconsin — on a last-minute blocked punt at the Metrodome — still has Gophers fans in a haunted disbelief. The torment continued with three-point losses in 2008 and 2009, and since then the Badgers have won by an average score of 35-16.
“It’s something that is eluding our résumés, for sure,” Gophers senior Jon Christenson said. “We’ve won all the other [rivalry] trophies, and it’s one of those that we want badly.”
Jerry Kill’s staff won Floyd of Rosedale from Iowa (in 2011 and 2014), the Governor’s Victory Bell from Penn State (2013) and the Little Brown Jug from Michigan (2014). But there’s a prominent spot in the Gophers’ trophy case just waiting for the six-foot Axe.
Last year, the Gophers would have won the Big Ten West title if they had found a way to solve the Badgers. Their regular-season finale in Madison was winner-take-all, and Minnesota led 17-3 before Wisconsin stormed back for a 34-24 win.
“The day we show up and play better for four quarters than Wisconsin does, we’ll bring the Axe back home,” Claeys said. “It’s a very simple formula. It’s hard to execute.”
The Badgers (8-3, 5-2) have a strong record again but aren’t the same team. Melvin Gordon, who set a Big Ten rushing record last year with 2,587 yards, bounced to the NFL. Corey Clement was expected to fill the void after rushing for 89 yards on only seven carries against the Gophers last year.
Clement has been hobbled with a sports hernia and played a limited role in last week’s 13-7 loss to Northwestern. He reportedly won’t play against the Gophers, after receiving two citations Tuesday for disorderly conduct from a Nov. 8 dispute at his off-campus apartment. The police report said Clement threw the first punch that night, even though the Badgers initially had depicted it as an act of self-defense.
Beyond Clement’s issues, Wisconsin has three redshirt freshmen starting on its injury-depleted offensive line. The Badgers led the Big Ten with 320 rushing yards per game last year. This year they average 138.
Despite the offensive shortcomings, the Badgers still rank No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense (12.4 points per game). The Gophers are allowing 25.6 points per game.
“We’re ready to go out there and play a 13-10 game,” Gophers senior Briean Boddy-Calhoun said. “It’s one of those unique games, where we’re not only facing their offense but we’re facing their defense. We’ve got to go in there like we’re not going to score any points — not saying we’re not — but we’ve got to go in there with that mind-set.”
Adding to the day’s emotion, Kill will be back for the first time since retiring for health reasons on Oct. 28. He’ll be on the field for the Senior Day introductions and he’ll help the Gophers commemorate their fourth annual Epilepsy Awareness Game.
Claeys said if the Gophers win, Kill should be the one who leads the charge to grab the Axe.
“He definitely deserves that,” Claeys said, “along with the players.”