Battle for the Axe and more

Despite long odds entering the season, the Badgers have given themselves ‘a chance to have a chance.’

Trophy games sure are fun. Especially when the home team is playing for two trophies.

Again.

For the second time in three years, the Badgers will play the Minnesota Golden Gophers for Paul Bunyan’s Axe AND the Big Ten West Division title. With the latter comes a ticket to next week’s conference championship game.

Just like you predicted, right?

Of course, outside expectations matter little. As fans, we can enjoy trying to figure out how a team will fare in a league race, but what truly matters is what those inside the locker room believe. Then it is on them to back it up.

This group believes. It has all along. And it is doing all it can to back it up — against a monster of a schedule.

The questions were fair. Could they survive the gauntlet? Would there be a letdown after an overtime thriller with Nebraska?

Yes. And no.

As a result, the Badgers have a chance to earn a trip to Indianapolis. Yes, they have given themselves a chance to have a chance.

Perhaps the season-opening squeaker against LSU in Green Bay helped the Badgers’ confidence. They defeated a storied SEC program with a preseason Heisman contender. Maybe winning that game at Lambeau Field served notice to everyone who touches the program that this year’s Badgers could hang with college football’s big boys.

Now the Gophers are standing in the way, hoping to ruin a party at Camp Randall Stadium.

They are a tough, talented bunch. It also makes perfect sense to believe they are more than sick and tired of seeing the Badgers take the Axe on a victory lap, something that has happened 12 straight years.

A Minnesota fan cherishes the memory of Rhys Lloyd’s walk-off field goal at the Metrodome in 2003. Since then, this rivalry has been a one-sided affair.

Keeping it that way figures to be anything but easy.

The Gophers have a good running game. Rodney Smith leads the way with 1,039 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Shannon Brooks averages nearly five yards a carry.

Quarterback Mitch Leidner has rushed for nine scores.

When he throws, Leidner usually targets Drew Wolitarsky, who has 57 receptions for 711 yards and five TDs. Next in line is Smith, with 21 catches.

The Minnesota defense can be salty. It allows 116 rushing yards a game, which makes for an interesting matchup against a Badgers ground attack that has improved significantly since facing Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The Gophers also have a plus-11 turnover margin. Opponents have fumbled 22 times against them, losing the ball on 15 occasions. They know how to knock the ball loose.

To make a long story short, the Gophers are getting better.

Then again, so are the Badgers. In the last two games, the defense has seven interceptions. Last Saturday at Purdue, the Wisconsin offense erupted for 35 points in the second quarter. Yes, the Boilermakers are having a miserable season, but five touchdowns in one period will get anyone’s attention.

Saturday should be fun. I have always enjoyed this game. For players who grew up in Wisconsin or in Minnesota, the battle for the Axe has always been appointment viewing. For those new to either state, they quickly learn this trophy game is for real.

You know the cliché about how we can throw away the records when these teams meet? Well, we don’t need to throw away the records. Both teams are good and the interest in this Border Battle will stretch far beyond the Upper Midwest.

Just the way it should be in late November. These teams have earned the right to play in a big stage game. Again.

You just gotta love these trophy games.

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