By Jon Krawczynski
AP Sports Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — One of the nation’s longest-running rivalries hasn’t been a real rivalry for quite a while.
Wisconsin has beaten Minnesota nine straight times, keeping Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Madison for what seems like an eternity to Golden Gophers fans. The Badgers have dominated for nearly a decade, racking up 39.1 points per game during the streak to Minnesota’s 15.2.
The Gophers last beat the Badgers in a 37-34 thriller in 2003, playing in a building they no longer inhabit. Minnesota has moved out of the drab Metrodome, but its struggles against Wisconsin followed to shiny new TCF Bank Stadium.
But there’s a little different feeling surrounding the latest meeting. There’s actually some hype. The Gophers have come alive, reeling off four straight Big Ten victories for the first time since 1973 to run their record to 8-2, the same as the No. 16 Badgers, who are 5-1 in the conference.
For the first time in a long time, the Badgers might have a fight on their hands.
“From Day 1, coming in here, the seniors and the older guys let me know what the Axe meant,” said Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who grew up in Kenosha. “It means everything. We’ve had it for nine years. No senior class wants to be the class to lose it. No one wants to lose it. That’s how high we hold that axe.”
Despite Minnesota’s vast improvement over the last month, odds makers have still installed the Gophers as more than two touchdown underdogs. That’s just fine for the long-suffering Gophers, who are still getting used to the compliments, pats on the back and excitement around campus that simply hasn’t been there for a long time.
“It is pretty highly anticipated, especially the fact that we’re both 8-2,” Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson said. “But at the same time, we’re still huge underdogs. That seems to never change and that’s right where we want to be.”
Here are five things to watch in the matchup:
GORDON GETS GOING: One half of the Badgers’ explosive running back tandem went through a two-game mini-slump by his lofty standards. He rushed for 62 yards in a win over Iowa, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry, and followed that with 86 yards in a win over BYU two weeks ago. No worries, though. Gordon busted loose for 146 yards and a touchdown, averaging 11.2 yards per carry, in last week’s win over Indiana.
OVERSHADOWED D: Wisconsin’s powerful offense has grabbed all the headlines this season. Gordon and James White combine to give the Badgers the only pair of backs in the country to rush for 1,000 yards each, but the defense may be what makes them really special. Linebacker Chris Borland leads a unit that is fifth in the nation in scoring defense, yielding just 14 points a game.
ENGEL’S HEALTH: Derrick Engel, Minnesota’s leading receiver, injured his knee during practice on Sunday, but Gophers coach Jerry Kill has played it coy with the severity. Engel was taken for an MRI this week, but the school did not announce the results of the exam and listed him as questionable for the game. There is a fear around the program that Engel could be out for the long term. Receiver is one of the thinnest positions on the Gophers roster. Engel is the only receiver on the team to have more than eight receptions.
LONG SHOT: If the Gophers can beat Wisconsin on Saturday and Northwestern beats Michigan State, it would open the door for an improbable Legends Division title for Minnesota. The Gophers finish the regular season at Michigan State next weekend. In that scenario, a win over the Spartans would put the Gophers on top. Considering they started the Big Ten season 0-2 with decisive losses to Iowa and Michigan, that they’re even in the mix at this point is an accomplishment in itself.
ADMIRING FROM AFAR: Kill has known Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez through the years and is an admirer of the work he’s done as a coach and an administrator for the Badgers. When Kill first took over at Minnesota, Alvarez offered him words of encouragement after a lopsided Badgers victory. The gesture resonated with Kill, a football historian who was well aware of the strong tradition the Badgers have forged in the last two decades. That made Kill’s declaration this week about new coach Gary Andersen’s Badgers all the more impressive. “They’ve gone to the Rose Bowl and done a lot of good things,” Kill said. “But I’m not too sure this is not their best football team.”