Two years ago on Nov. 24, the Gophers went to Camp Randall Stadium needing a victory to not only break Wisconsin's 14-year hold on Paul Bunyan's Axe but also to gain a sixth win and qualify for a bowl game. Coach P.J. Fleck's squad accomplished both goals, beating the Badgers 37-15 and securing a trip to the Quick Lane Bowl.
Two years later, the stakes are similar but not as cut-and-dried. Minnesota (3-3) would regain the Axe with a win over Wisconsin (2-3) on Saturday in Madison, Wis., though their bowl situation remains muddled. In a nod to the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA waived the minimum six-win requirement in 2020 for bowl eligibility, meaning teams with losing records can play in a bowl if invited.
For Fleck, facing Wisconsin in the 130th meeting of the rivalry — one that was scheduled for Nov. 28 but canceled because of the Gophers' COVID-19 issues — takes precedence over what might happen later in December.
"We have a one-game championship season against Wisconsin, a major rival," Fleck said during his Monday video conference with media members. "It's so exciting to end the year, a very difficult year. It gives our fans, Wisconsin fans, both teams something to end the year playing for something more than just the victory with the trophy game. It's really special, so we're going to focus on us."
Working their way back
The Gophers pulled themselves back to .500 with a 24-17 victory at Nebraska on Saturday and will try to end the season with a three-game winning streak over five weeks, dating to the Nov. 20 home win over Purdue. Standing in their way is Wisconsin, which is coming off a loss at No. 18 Iowa. The Badgers have lost three straight, all to teams currently ranked — 17-7 at No. 15 Northwestern, 14-6 vs. No. 7 Indiana and 28-7 to the Hawkeyes.
Fleck knows the Badgers might be wounded, but they're still dangerous, especially with a defense that has allowed only one rushing touchdown this season and gives up 83.2 yards per game on the ground, the least in the Big Ten. That Wisconsin defensive strength meets head-up against the Gophers' power, a running game that ranks third in the Big Ten at 199.5 yards per game and features Mohamed Ibrahim, whose 925 yards and 15 rushing TDs pace the conference.
"They're probably the best defensive line or front seven we've played all year, with all due respect to everybody we've played," Fleck said. " … One rushing touchdown — that just says it all."
The Gophers used Ibrahim's powerful running to wear down Nebraska on Saturday, with the 5-10, 210-pound junior scoring the clinching touchdown early in the fourth quarter and sealing the victory by carrying six times for 69 yards in a possession that drained the final 4:42 off the clock.
That was reminiscent of what Ibrahim did to Wisconsin in 2018, when he carried 19 times for 71 yards in the second half as Minnesota held the ball for nearly 22 of the final 30 minutes.
"We're going to have to find a way to be balanced,'' Fleck said. "How we do that, that's what this whole week is about — finding creative ways to be very balanced.''
One more game?
So, what happens in regard to a bowl game if the Gophers, 11½-point underdogs on Saturday, beat Wisconsin? A 4-3 record would boost their chances and should put them ahead of the Badgers, if it came down to a decision between the two.
CBS Sports' Jerry Palm told the Star Tribune that the Gophers likely would need to win four games to make a bowl, and in his latest projections has them left out and Wisconsin playing TCU in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 26 in Phoenix.
ESPN's Kyle Bonagura and Schlabach both project the Gophers to play in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30, against Tennessee or Kentucky, respectively. Bonagura also has Wisconsin in a bowl game; Schlabach does not.
Ten bowls have been canceled, including three with Big Ten ties — the Pinstripe, Quick Lane and Redbox.
Fleck said any bowl decision on the Gophers' end would be made with input from several parties.
"If and when you get to a bowl game, that's going to be done as a group decision," he said.
"That's going to be from President [Joan] Gabel, that's going to be from [athletic director] Mark Coyle, that will be with our players, that will be with our staff."
First, though, is Wisconsin.
"I'll say this: 100 percent of our focus, my focus is on Wisconsin, period," Fleck said.