In 2004, this would not have even been a question.
Of course Minnesota and Wisconsin are rivals. Arch-rivals. There is nobody on the schedule each would rather beat.
That year, the Badgers beat the Gophers 38-14 at Camp Randall Stadium, marking the fifth consecutive year the home team laid claim to Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Since that November matchup, though, the Axe has taken permanent residence in Madison. Saturday, Wisconsin will attempt to win its ninth straight against the Gophers, which would match the longest winning streak by either team in the 122-game history of the rivalry.
“I’m kind of a math guy and … the probability of winning nine times in a row, obviously it’s not a random chance, but it gets harder and harder to do each time,” redshirt junior offensive lineman Travis Frederick said. “So really our charge is to be able to put another one on top of that.”
Over the last eight years, the math has been definitively on Wisconsin’s side. The Badgers have outscored the Gophers by an average of 15.5 points per contest (39.3 to 23.8), and the two teams have played just three games decided by 10 points or less.
Still, the series has not lacked for drama. In 2005, then-freshman linebacker Jonathan Casillas blocked a punt and safety Ben Strickland recovered it in the endzone to cap off a wild 38-34 win at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis. Strickland, who now coaches the safeties, served this week as part of the history lesson put on by the Badgers for young players and new coaches.
According to Frederick, his message was not surprising, but it was still powerful.
“It doesn’t matter where we’re ranked or who’s supposed to win this game, it really doesn’t matter,” the Sharon, Wis., native said. “There are so many great stories in this rivalry that go back to guys just being tough or guys just playing out of their mind. So many things have happened in this rivalry that make it special for us.”
Frederick also pointed to Wisconsin’s slugfest win (31-28) in 2009 as a sign that there is still intensity in the on-field rivalry. Still, Minnesota redshirt senior linebacker Mike Rallis told Minnesota media this week that competitiveness is key to any rivalry.
“In a rivalry game, if you don’t ever win, it’s not really a rivalry,” he told Fox Sports North.
For the Badgers, beyond the prevailing “1-0” mentality, the sense is that nobody wants to be the group that sees the winning streak die.
“What makes it a little more urgent for us is we’ve had it here my entire tenure,” Frederick said “I’ve seen video of the of the team coming across the sidelines and taking it off of our hands. I just can’t imagine that happening and so I think that puts more of a sense of urgency behind it.”
The Badgers have won 15 of the last 17 contests between the two teams dating back to 1994, which is also the last time the Gophers notched a win at Camp Randall. Every Badger will say the burn to beat Minnesota does not go away, even with the rise of more competitive matchups like Michigan State, Ohio State and Nebraska.
“They make a big deal out of it, you just sit down, you learn the tradition of the axe and the rivalry,” freshman fullback Derek Watt said.
Watt grew up in Wisconsin and said he attended an installment of the rivalry when he was a kid. The roots, combined with the perfect record in the rivalry of his older brother—NFL standout J.J. Watt—mean the Pewaukee native is well-schooled.
“Every day [this week] going out to practice we touch the Axe, every day leaving the field we touch the Axe,” he said. “We’re just trying to do everything we can to keep it here.”