To say it’s been a rough couple of days for No. 18 Wisconsin (2-1) would be an understatement.
Just three days after a devastating loss to No. 8 Northwestern (5-0), the Badgers learned Wednesday that Saturday’s upcoming game against Minnesota (2-3) had been cancelled due to COVID-19 complications within the Minnesota football program, according to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. While the Northwestern loss all but knocked Wisconsin out of Big Ten contention, today’s cancellation makes it official: barring some sort of last minute change, the Badgers will not meet the six game threshold to be eligible to play in the Big Ten title game.
Minnesota is always one of, if not the most, anticipated game on the schedule. The “Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe” is Wisconsin’s biggest rivalry game, and the two teams have met every year since 1906. That streak will end as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak within Minnesota’s program. Wisconsin has now had three games cancelled in five weeks.
Minnesota and Wisconsin were the two favorites to win the Big Ten West before the beginning of the season, but the season hasn’t gone the way either program envisioned. Wisconsin had a COVID-19 outbreak of their own, resulting in games against Nebraska and Purdue being cancelled. After a win at Michigan catapulted the Badgers into the top 10 of the AP poll, Northwestern brought Wisconsin down to earth with a stifling defensive performance, holding Wisconsin and quarterback Graham Mertz to just seven points on offense.
As frustrating of a season as it has been for Wisconsin, it has been more so for Minnesota. Just a year removed from an 11-win campaign, the Golden Gophers are lucky to be 2-3, having narrowly escaped a home loss against Purdue as a result of an extraordinarily controversial offensive pass interference call that negated the Boilermakers winning touchdown. The team has been blown out by Michigan and Iowa, and blew a 17-point lead to Maryland in spectacular fashion. While Head Coach P.J. Fleck may have had the Gophers “rowing the boat” last season, this season it is merely treading water, if not sinking outright.
Saturday’s game would have been crucial for both teams. Wisconsin desperately needed a bounceback win after Saturday’s miserable showing against Northwestern, and the game would have offered a chance for the Gophers to right the ship and build some much needed momentum going into the 2021 season. The series’s all time record was on the line as well — the Badgers took a 61-60-8 lead after last season’s win.
Instead, both teams will be forced to spend Saturday at home, pondering the “what-if’s” left unanswered by the game’s cancellation. Wisconsin was a heavy favorite (21.5 points), but nothing is a given in a rivalry as tense as this one.
The news is especially heartbreaking for the team’s seniors, who hoped to have one more opportunity to win the Axe before graduation.
"Seniors, at least here are the ones that get to chop [Paul Bunyan’s Axe], and this is my turn," tackle Cole Van Lanen said on Tuesday. "I really want to be able to chop that axe by the end of Saturday night."
The one positive for Wisconsin is that the team will get an extra week of rest before next Saturday's matchup against the No.12 Indiana Hoosiers (4-1). The injury status of receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, who were sorely missed against Northwestern, is unknown, and the Badgers desperately need the two healthy to go stride-for-stride with Indiana’s explosive offense.
If another team has a COVID-19 cancellation this week, then Wisconsin could theoretically reschedule this Saturday’s matchup against another idle Big Ten team. As of now, that appears to be unlikely, although the situation could change rapidly.
The Badgers will get to keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe for another season, but it feels more like a hollow victory. Gone are the team’s conference title hopes and gone is a historic 106-year unbroken streak of games against Minnesota that survived World War I, the Spanish Flu, World War II and Vietnam — another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.