An opportunity for salvation.
That’s how a number of the Minnesota football players view Saturday’s game at No. 20 Wisconsin, the 120th edition of the longest running rivalry in college football.
The Gophers have not beaten the Badgers since 2003 and have not won at Camp Randall Stadium since 1994.
But the losing streak on many people’s mind is the current four-game skid this season.
Senior quarterback Adam Weber said a win would not erase what’s transpired the past four weeks, but bringing Paul Bunyan’s Axe back on the bus would be a nice consolation prize.
“For us to actually be able to get [the Axe],” junior running back DeLeon Eskridge said, “I think it would just help people not think about the season and just help everybody come together.”
Out of the 105 players on the Gophers roster, safety Kim Royston — who said his broken leg feels 99.8 percent better but remains a game-time decision — is the only one to win the Axe. He accomplished the feat before transferring from Wisconsin after the 2007 season.
The Gophers also have five coaches that have won the Axe with the Badgers, but co-offensive coordinator Jeff Horton is the only one to win it on both sides. He won the battle five times for Wisconsin as a coach from 1999 to 2005 and one for Minnesota during his 1984 stint as a graduate assistant.
“It hopefully gives you a little credibility that you’ve been in that battle and you’ve found a way to win,” Horton said about conveying his past to the players. “The biggest thing is making them realize the importance of it. To us it’s really not another game.”
Weber knows that as well as anybody. The Mounds View graduate’s father Bob was on two axe-winning teams. This Weber has yet to win it, though, and he’s started the previous three contests, all losses of seven points or fewer.
“Out of all the series throughout my career, this one’s been pretty painful,” Weber said.
He didn’t say it was the most painful, however, because the Gophers’ other trophies have stayed at Iowa, Michigan and Penn State since Weber took the starting job and Tim Brewster became the head coach.
But just as this team has had chances to win in each of its four losses this year, the Gophers have been right there when it comes to Wisconsin.
“Those have been three really close games and three games that we could have won,” senior safety Kyle Theret said. “Now we just have to go try to get over that little hump that we never have.”
Weber has seen Minnesota win the Axe from the stands, but he’s walked off the field three times while the opponents ran to reclaim what was already theirs.
“It hurts you. It definitely hurts you,” Weber said about watching the celebration. “But you watch that and you see how much fun and how much enjoyment they get out of that.
“To be part of a team that’s able to do that would be something that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”
Theret and Eskridge are from California, but both said they discovered the excitement surrounding this rivalry as soon as they came to Minnesota.
Although the results haven’t been good for the Gophers, the excitement lingers, especially for their first conference road test.
“When I had a game there two years ago that was probably the most exciting game I’ve ever been a part of, just based off of atmosphere and what it’s like, the rivalry and just knowing the history behind it and how intense it is out there,” Theret said about Camp Randall. “It’s exciting. It’s exactly what you want when you go on the road and you play a Big Ten team.”
What Weber wants is to silence the crowd and take all the excitement away from Wisconsin and its fans. He said Brewster has reminded him “the best noise in sports is quiet.”
“As a football player, you couldn't want anything more than to go into that environment and embrace it, accept the challenge, and go out and play well,” Brewster said.
Brewster also mentioned that the Gophers will bring an “us against the world” mentality to Madison. Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said that motivation should keep the 22-point favorites from overlooking Saturday’s game.
“Because of where they’re at right now, I expect them to come in here as hungry and as eager to be part of success as anybody that we’ve faced to this point,” Bielema said of the Gophers. “They’re going to come in and know it’s a rivalry game, know that it’s homecoming here, and they’ll have all those things working on their behalf for motivation.”
That mentality could help Minnesota, but the Gophers first need to avoid the “us against us” issue displayed in recent years against Wisconsin.
In each of the last three meetings, Minnesota has suffered at least nine penalties for 75 or more yards. The Gophers have also lost three turnovers in each game.
Chop both those and the Gophers should have a chance to end all the streaks.
“We’re really hoping, and I’m really hoping that this year we can go out and stay calm, stay relaxed, really capitalize on the opportunities that present themselves and then be able to chop down their goal post,” Weber said. “That’s the tradition with the axe. They were able to do it in our brand new stadium, and that’s what I dream about.”