The final game of the season has come, and the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers (6-2 Big Ten, 9-2 overall) are just one win away from a Big Ten Championship appearance, sitting only two places out of the College Football Playoff.
Enthusiasm shouldn’t be hard to come by for the Badgers, as Wisconsin takes on the Minnesota Gophers (5-3 Big Ten, 8-3 overall) in the annual Border Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. It is a rivalry that dates back to the late-19th century, with a trophy that’s roots extend back as far as the Truman administration.
As of late, it’s been less of a rivalry and more of a freebie for the Badgers, as the Cardinal and White have won the last 12 contests between the two teams. Their control of the series goes back even further, with the Badgers winning 19 of the last 21 games versus the Gophers.
For junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt, the game has a unique significance, having two brothers (J.J. and Derek Watt) who have kept the trophy in Madison and now are having successful careers in the NFL.
“At Thanksgiving they talk, but I can’t really think about stuff like that,” Watt said. “Obviously when the Axe is on the line you have a little more juice in your step. It’s a little different; I’m not going to lie and say it’s not different. It’s a rivalry week.”
For fellow linebacker Ryan Connelly, the game also carries some personal incentive. Connelly, a Minnesota native, was completely overlooked by the Gophers in the high school recruiting process, and the linebacker hasn't forgotten.
“They really didn't want anything to do with me,” he said. “So that's a little piece of motivation for me.”
Unlike Connelly, for players from Wisconsin, the memories of the rivalry tend to be more positive, and the passion comes from a slightly different place. There are powerful memories from games past that just seem to stick with the players.
Chikwe Obasih, a senior UW defensive lineman out of Brookfield, Wis., remembers growing up and watching the unforgettable matchups between the two nemeses.
“I remember when [Wisconsin] lost in ’03,” Obasih said. “I remember [Jonathon] Casillas blocking that kick and [Ben] Strickland recovering it. That was one of my favorites to watch.”
If the Badgers can finish out the season with a win, they will make their own mark on the rivalry’s history and will have an open door to the Big Ten Title, and perhaps something even bigger.
Kickoff is Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Camp Randall Stadium and will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.