This might be Mike Sanford Jr.'s first time coaching in a Gophers-Wisconsin showdown, but it's certainly not his introduction to the rivalry.
"I think I was in middle school, high school, where I saw highlights of a classic Minnesota-Wisconsin border battle game," the Gophers offensive coordinator said. " … I'll never forget seeing that Axe, and I was like, 'Wow, that's an incredible trophy.'
" … It's a really unique rivalry in the sense that between these two states, it's humongous."
The Gophers will meet the Badgers for the 130th time Saturday, a rescheduled matchup after the Gophers' COVID-19 outbreak knocked out the original Nov. 28 game and threatened to make 2020 just the second time since 1890 the annual rivalry didn't happen. And even a non-Midwest native like Sanford understands implicitly what taking Paul Bunyan's Axe means.
Even in a year when both teams have gone awry.
Each has endured pandemic shutdowns, embarrassing performances and unaccomplished goals. The Gophers hoped this season could be an even more successful follow-up to an 11-2 run in 2019 but have limped along with an inexperienced defense. The preseason Big Ten West favorite Badgers started the year with two monster wins, only to have their offense disappear along with their chance for a return trip to the Big Ten title game.
At 3-3 for the Gophers and 2-3 for Wisconsin, both teams can pretty much write off this year as a freebie, considering the extra year of eligibility all players have. After all, it's pretty difficult to establish and maintain any kind of momentum in a season without spring practice or training camp or nonconference games, when the season itself was on-off-and-on again, when positive COVID-19 cases among players and staff locked down the facility and truncated an already shortened and delayed schedule.
When the teams met in the final game of the 2019 regular season, everything was on the line. The winner, ultimately Wisconsin in a 38-17 victory at TCF Bank Stadium, went to the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl. This season, the most at stake is a possible trip to a low-tier bowl game such as the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix, where no fans beyond the teams' families can attend and kickoff time is 9:15 p.m. the day after Christmas.
And yet, the rivalry hasn't lost any value.
"So exciting," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said, "to end the year, a very difficult year, [giving] our fans, Wisconsin fans, our team, both teams, something to really end the year with, playing for something more than just the victory with the trophy game. It's really special."
The Gophers have a formidable challenge against Wisconsin's Big Ten-leading defense, which allows just 251 yards and 15.4 points per game on average. But the Gophers offense, powered by Big Ten Running Back of the Year Mohamed Ibrahim, will need more impact from its inconsistent passing game.
Wisconsin's offense has slowed down the stretch with redshirt freshman Graham Mertz at quarterback, going from nearly 100 points through the first two games to managing seven or fewer in each of the past three. The Gophers defense, though, has struggled to contain explosive plays and is one of the worst in the country, allowing more than 7 yards per play.
Ahead of the original date, Wisconsin players remembered the 2018 loss to the Gophers at Camp Randall, how that crushed that year's seniors, with it being the first loss at home to the border rivals since 1994 and the end of a 14-year win streak. How that lit a renewed fire heading into 2019.
The Gophers don't like to dwell on what happened last year, nor do they like to admit they approach this game any differently. But they all fondly recall that 2018 triumph.
Defensive end Boye Mafe remembered staying on the field an extra 30 minutes after the final whistle just to soak up the euphoria. Ibrahim recalled coming off the bus from Wisconsin and seeing the indoor practice facility nearly three-quarters full of fans there to welcome the champions back. Quarterback Tanner Morgan said those fans stayed for an hour, just to watch anything the team did with the Axe.
"That actually put in perspective how big this game actually is and what it means to the whole state of Minnesota," said Ibrahim, a Maryland native. "So that was an eye-opener and made me really understand how big this game is."
Mafe, a Hopkins grad, said this rivalry means everything to him and is a dream he lives out each season as a Minnesota guy. And he's even more grateful this season, after learning firsthand how quickly games he was looking forward to playing vanished. When the Big Ten re-added the rivalry, it answered the teams' hopes and prayers, as Ibrahim said.
To win the game would mean instant relief after a punishing year.
"Yeah," offensive lineman Sam Schlueter said, "I definitely think it'll make things feel a little bit better, you know?"