BLOOMINGTON, IND. – Tanner Morgan and Chris Autman-Bell won it once, and they want it again. Nyles Pinckney will have only one shot at it and wants to make the opportunity count.
"It,'' of course, is Paul Bunyan's Axe, which goes to the winner of Saturday's regular-season finale between the Gophers and Wisconsin at Huntington Bank Stadium. The Gophers and Badgers are playing for the 131st time, and the Axe will go to the winner for the 73rd time. Minnesota last won it in 2018, beating the Badgers 37-15 in Madison before losing the past two seasons, 38-17 and 20-17 in overtime.
"To be able to play in games like that is something you cherish,'' said Morgan, a fifth-year senior quarterback who's started the past three Axe games and helped end Wisconsin's 14-year hold on the trophy three years ago. … That was obviously a moment I'll never forget.''
Depending on how a couple of other games shake out around the Big Ten, the Gophers could have a chance to make another memory. They could be playing for the West Division championship on Saturday – a possibility that seemed remote only a week ago after their losing streak reached two games after at 27-22 loss at Iowa.
Here's the situation: The West title still is up for grabs with three teams in contention: Wisconsin and Iowa at 6-2 and the Gophers at 5-3. To win the West, the Gophers need three specific results to happen.
First, Iowa must lose at Nebraska on Friday.
Though Nebraska is 3-8 and on a five-game losing streak, it has shown the ability to punch above its weight. The Huskers lost to Oklahoma by seven points, Michigan State and Michigan by three, Purdue by five, Ohio State by nine and Wisconsin by seven.
Iowa opened as a six-point favorite over Nebraska and has won the past six in the series. The past three have been tight, though, with the Hawkeyes winning 26-20, 27-24 and 31-28.
Autman-Bell, a redshirt senior wide receiver, will be a Huskers fan for a day.
"For sure. That's one of the days we've got to be one,'' he said, before adding. "We've got to control what we can control, keep our head down and work as a team, and whatever happens, happens.''
On Saturday, the Gophers need to beat Wisconsin and have Purdue avoid an upset loss at home to Indiana, the 2-9 team that Minnesota drilled 35-14 in Bloomington. If Iowa loses and the Gophers and Purdue win, that would create a four-way tie atop the West at 6-3. The first tiebreaker would eliminate Purdue and Iowa based on their 1-2 records among the quartet while the Gophers and Wisconsin each would be 2-1. That would bring back a head-to-head tiebreaker between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Gophers would win that tiebreaker and advance to the Big Ten Championship Game against either Ohio State or Michigan on Dec. 4 in Indianapolis.
Pinckney, a transfer from Clemson in his final season of college football, is embracing the chance for the Gophers to win the Axe and all that might come with it.
"It's very exciting,'' he said. "Last week was a tough loss [at Iowa] but having another chance to play a rivalry game is great. This is my first time playing Wisconsin and my last, and it'll be something I really want to help do for the older guys here.''
For coach P.J. Fleck, claiming the Axe is the primary goal, and he'll hope for positive results from Lincoln and West Lafayette.
"We have to take care of our business,'' he said during the Indiana postgame. "If we lose next week, it doesn't matter anyway.''