Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and the Badgers have one team in particular to be thankful for as the holiday approaches: the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Following No. 8 Minnesota’s (6-1 Big Ten, 9-1 overall) stunning victory over the then No.4 Penn State Nittany Lions (6-1 Big Ten, 9-1 overall), the Gophers had a chance to all but lock up a trip to Indianapolis as Big Ten West champions with a win at Iowa last Saturday. But, as the legend goes — nine wins come into Kinnick Stadium in November, and nine wins will come out.
Playing under the lights, the No. 20 Hawkeyes played the role of spoiler as they have many times in years past, opening up a 20-3 lead over Minnesota behind inspired running from freshman Tyler Goodson, who finished with 94 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Minnesota clawed back in the second half, cutting the Hawkeye lead to 23-19 after a one yard touchdown carry from Rodney Smith.
However, Gopher kicker Brock Walker hooked his extra point try to the right, and with his miss Minnesota’s momentum seemed to evaporate. The Gophers got the ball back twice with chances to win, but never threatened again, even despite a heroic performance from quarterback Tanner Morgan, who finished completing 25 of 36 passes for 368 yards.
The Gopher loss was welcome news to No. 14 Wisconsin (5-2 Big Ten, 8-2 overall), who have now reclaimed their Big Ten West fate. The route is now very simple. Win out, and the Badgers will represent the division in the Big Ten Championship, likely setting up a rematch against No. 2 Ohio State (7-0 Big Ten, 10-0 overall).
Standing in Wisconsin’s way are their bitter rivals to the west. Minnesota, who opened the season 9-0 for the first time since 1904, have their sights set on a Big Ten West crown as well. The Gophers playoff hopes might have come to an end in Iowa City, but a trip to Indianapolis, and potentially the Rose Bowl, are still very real possibilities for head coach P.J. Fleck’s group.
Like Wisconsin, Minnesota simply has to win its remaining games to become Big Ten West champions for the first time in the history of the current league format. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin are heavy favorites this Saturday, with the Badgers favored by 23 points at home against Purdue and the Gophers favored by 12 on the road at Northwestern. Should both teams handle their business, the two will play each other in a de-facto Big Ten West Championship game, which would be one of the biggest axe games in recent memory.
Memories of Minnesota’s 37-15 beatdown of Wisconsin are fresh in every Badger fans mind, and the team will certainly be intent on revenge when they travel to Minneapolis on Nov. 30, regardless of title implications. If both teams win this Saturday, however, the hype and tension will reach levels this rivalry hasn’t seen since 2014, when the situation was uncannily similar.
The 2014 iteration of the axe rivalry was also a de-facto Big Ten West Championship game, and it ended up being the final regular season Big Ten game for legendary Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon.
Starting to see the similarities?
Gordon ran wild on the Gopher defense that day, recording 151 yards on 29 carries as Wisconsin clinched a spot in the Big Ten title game. Minnesota opened up a 20-3 lead, but behind efficient play from quarterback Joel Stave and a career day from receiver Alex Erickson, the Badgers stormed back to win 34-24.
The Gophers will attempt to flip the script next week in Minneapolis, but they’ll have to find a way to stop running back Jonathan Taylor on offense and linebacker Zach Baun on defense, in what will in all likelihood be the final axe game for both. The Gophers had an abysmal time trying to scheme against Iowa edge rusher AJ Epsena, and the Badgers can only hope Baun will have a similar impact next Saturday.
In terms of pure drama, it doesn’t get much better than the next two weeks of Big Ten West Football. The stage is all but set for a Minnesota - Wisconsin Big Ten West Championship game, a chance for the Badgers to vindicate the embarrassing loss to the Gophers last season.