2020 version of 'Axe' battle was exactly that — and it was refreshing
Count on the ever-jabbering P.J. Fleck to put it perfectly.
“This is why you play the rivalry game,” Minnesota’s motor-mouthed coach said Saturday after his team’s 20-17 overtime loss in the 2020 version of the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Truth be told, that’s all that was really at stake: a 6-foot-long, 20-pound trophy that’s been passed back and forth across the St. Croix River every year since 1948. But upholding college football’s longest-running rivalry was enough of a priority to the Golden Gophers, Wisconsin and the Big Ten that the original plan of divisional crossover games for this “Champions Weekend” was altered.
And fans watching from home in their maroon-and-gold or red-and-white hoodies and toques shouldn’t be disappointed.
This was a good, old-fashioned B1G slugfest in 33-degree weather at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers outgained Minnesota by just 4 yards (326-322). Running backs Mohamed Ibrahim (26 carries, 151 yards) and Garrett Groshek took turns putting their respective teams on their back. Both teams came up with big runs and big stops.
It took a missed field goal by the Gophers’ backup kicker in overtime and a successful 30-yarder by Collin Larsh to give Wisconsin back-to-back wins in the series after Minnesota snapped its border rival’s 14-game win streak in 2018.
Originally scheduled for Nov. 28 but canceled due to Minnesota’s COVID-19 outbreak, Saturday’s contest only happened due to a rare streak of ingenuity and flexibility on the part of the beleaguered B1G. While Minnesota had a lot of its top horses back from coronavirus positive tests and contact tracing, Wisconsin played without running backs Jalen Berger and Nakia Watson, receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis and stud left tackle Cole Van Lanen.
These were two of the college football programs COVID hit hardest. Wisconsin, which had B1G championship aspirations once upon a time, had games against Nebraska and Purdue canceled before the Badgers’ season could really get rolling. Minnesota had more than 40 players and staff infected at one point, had to cancel two games of its own and managed to top Nebraska last week despite missing 33 players.
It’s why Saturday might have been the bowl game for at least one program, even though every team still standing is technically eligible this year.
Fleck hinted at passing up on an invite should it come. But the decision will be one he discusses with his bosses and players.
“The thought of your son on Christmas morning having a box lunch sitting in their room because they can’t go anywhere,” Fleck said. “That’s Christmas?”
Badgers coach Paul Chryst has been more open to the idea. Wisconsin finishes the B1G slate 3-3, so in theory it should be in line for a bowl contest with a conference tie-in.
In any case, brighter days are ahead for both teams, the sport and the country.
Wisconsin reloads annually and has a talented, albeit inconsistent, quarterback in Graham Mertz. The freshman had another up-and-down day before leaving the game due to a helmet-to-helmet hit in the third quarter.
The Gophers could end up bringing back a ton of experience from their 3-4 campaign, thanks to a forgiven year of eligibility and a plethora of youngsters forced into roles they wouldn’t have been during a normal year.
And while the result went the way of the more established program at this point, both teams won Saturday. Because this rivalry survived COVID-19, just like it did two World Wars and the 1918 Spanish flu.
“This game means something,” Chryst said. “You certainly saw that and felt that at the end.”