It is rare that the week featuring Wisconsin vs. Minnesota arrives and the talk of historical impact in the Big Ten does not center around Paul Bunyan’s axe. That is exactly the case this year, as the devastating facts continue to surface in State College, Penn., and major announcements keep coming from Penn State University.
Legendary head coach Joe Paterno and college President Graham Spanier are out, as are athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Shultz.
The situation at Penn State is virtually unthinkable. It puts football, amateur athletics—rivalries with 120 all-time matchups included—and sports in general into perspective in the most chilling way.
That being said, Wisconsin football players are generally not talking about it and—perspective aside—there are championship ramifications for every game from here out for UW.
The No. 16 Badgers (3-2 Big Ten, 7-2 overall) have enough on their plate without considering the opponent. UW still does not have a true road victory and the next foe has played its best ball of the season the last two weeks, beating Iowa at home and taking Michigan State to the wire in East Lansing.
Consider the fact that Paul Bunyan’s axe is on the line, and head coach Bret Bielema has kept it on the Badgers’ sideline since he took over in 2005, and the current status of each program seems slightly less meaningful.
“You can throw the records out the window because that game is always competitive down to the end and we have to be ready for a four-quarter battle,” said running backs coach Thomas Hammock, who is in his first year at UW after coaching for four at Minnesota.
Hammock coached running backs for three years before becoming offensive coordinator in his last year in the Twin Cities. After former head coach Tim Brewster was fired, Hammock called plays for the Gophers.
He’s not the only member of the team with ties, either. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Brandon Kelly hails from Eden Prairie, Minn., and said he still has a lot of friends on the opposing sideline. He committed to play at Minnesota for nine months before reversing course and joining Bielema’s program.
“I think they went 1-11 and Wisconsin was like, 11-1, and I was thinking to myself, ‘This can’t be right. I can’t be committed here,’” Kelly said. “The coaching staff did a great job recruiting me and I was just so attracted to the campus and the school itself.”
Dating back to 2003, the last four meetings between the teams in Minneapolis have been decided by a total of 14 points. That includes the last loss suffered by the Badgers in the series (37-34 in 2003) and one of the wildest Badger wins in recent history.
In 2005, UW capped an improbable comeback when Ben Strickland recovered a blocked punt in the end zone with 30 seconds remaining, erasing a 34-24 Gophers lead with 3:27 to play.
“I was watching that game and jumping up and down,” said redshirt junior center Peter Konz, who was a student at Neenah High School at the time. “Some of my friends said they were going to leave the house because the game was over and I said, ‘This isn’t soccer, you can score more than one point at a time.’”
The team takes time to talk about the rivalry through the week, and Konz said he has got all the motivation he needs.
“I’ve seen film of when they come run over to the sideline and I never want that to happen,” he said.