On Saturday afternoon when the Gophers take the field at Camp Randall Stadium, they’ll be doing so with a handful of opportunities awaiting them.
First, they have the chance to end Wisconsin’s 14-year hold on Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the trophy that goes to the victor of the border rivalry that dates to 1890. Winning back the Axe would provide at least temporary relief for Gophers fans who’ve had to endure their Badgers counterparts lording that winning streak over them.
Second, the Gophers have a chance to secure bowl eligibility in coach P.J. Fleck’s second year. Though Minnesota (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) won’t be playing on New Year’s Day and could end up in a game in Detroit or Dallas if the Gophers reach six wins, qualifying for a bowl would avoid the indignity of not playing in the postseason for two consecutive years. That last happened in 2010 (Tim Brewster’s last year as coach) and ’11 (Jerry Kill’s first year), and before that in 1997 and ’98 (Glen Mason’s first two seasons).
Third and maybe most important, the Gophers have the opportunity to deliver what would be the signature win so far in Fleck’s tenure, giving the fan base something they can wrap their arms around. By playing a roster that features seven freshmen starting on offense, Fleck is steadfastly sticking to his plan of building for the future.
But the present still must be fed, and beating Wisconsin would go a long way.
“It’s not very difficult to tell our players a little bit about this week and what it means,” Fleck said.
The time is now
This game might be Minnesota’s only chance for nearly a full calendar year to impress that noncommittal bloc known as casual fans in this sports-saturated market.
The Gophers play 2019 nonconference home games against FCS-level South Dakota State and Georgia Southern of the Sun Belt Conference, with a trip to Fresno State in between. The first five Big Ten games are at Purdue, vs. Illinois, vs. Nebraska, at Rutgers and vs. Maryland, and those teams are a combined 19-37 this year. The Gophers won’t face a upper-tier Big Ten team until Nov. 9, when Penn State visits TCF Bank Stadium.
Beating Wisconsin would grab people’s attention, and the Gophers certainly need that. Their average announced attendance this season was 37,914, the lowest in TCF Bank Stadium history. More alarming: The scanned ticket data obtained by the Star Tribune this week reveal an average actual attendance of 22,656, including 15,434 for the Nov. 10 game against Purdue and 15,160 for last week’s home finale vs. Northwestern.
Though Wisconsin is a 10½-point favorite, the opportunity is knocking for the Gophers. The Badgers, who held College Football Playoff aspirations and were ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25, carry a disappointing-for-them 7-4 record into the game. That’s Wisconsin’s worst record when facing the Gophers since its 5-5 mark in 2008. In addition, the Badgers might be without starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who has missed three of the past four games because of a concussion.
Since the Nov. 3 debacle at Illinois, when the Gophers gave up 646 yards in a 55-31 loss to a now 4-7 Illini team, Minnesota has played much better on defense. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith was fired the day after the loss to Illinois and Joe Rossi replaced him on an interim basis. Under Rossi, the Gophers have given up a total of 558 yards in two games. Under Smith, they allowed an average of 505 yards in six Big Ten games.
Comparing scores is an inexact science, though it’s interesting to see how the Gophers and Badgers have fared against recent opponents. Wisconsin needed three overtimes and a comeback from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 47-44 at Purdue last week. The Gophers beat Purdue 41-10 in Minneapolis the week before. The Badgers lost 31-17 at Northwestern on Oct. 27. The Gophers fell 24-14 to the Wildcats at home last week.
On Saturday, the score could get lopsided if the Gophers can’t contain running back Jonathan Taylor, who leads the nation with 1,869 rushing yards and ripped through Purdue for a career-high 321. If Taylor runs wild, chances are the Badgers will be running around with that Axe again.
Leading up to their rivalry game, the Gophers were only focused on opportunity.
“It doesn’t matter what the records are, doesn’t matter where you are, doesn’t matter how young you are, doesn’t matter anybody’s issues, problems or successes,” Fleck said. “For 60 minutes, you’ve got a chance to do something really, really special.”