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Axe to Grind: Wisconsin-Minnesota altercation shows rivalry flames fanned anew

Saturday's post-game tussle was brief, but it cemented Minnesota's return to respectability.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports


Rewarding myself after a tough afternoon of watching college football and another Wisconsin win from my worn leather couch, I decided to turn off the television. Seconds later, my Twitter feed had blown up like a Miley Cyrus performance at the VMAs, talking about the Badgers and Gophers clashing and exchanging words after the game.

I guess Minnesota did have an axe to grind with Wisconsin after all.

Saturday’s game between the Badgers and Gophers may have been the feather in the cap of a decade-long span of dominance by Wisconsin, but the latest contest for the Axe finally generated what the border battle has been sorely lacking: buzz.

Sure, it’s not as though the last decade in the battle for a giant weapon yielded by a mythological lumberjack has lacked any notable moments.

Take, for example, the memorable blocked punt in 2005 (Barry Alvarez’s final season as Wisconsin's head coach) or the exchange of words between Brewster and then-head coach Bret Bielema when the latter went for two with his Wisconsin team up 41-16 in 2010.

But those have been just two brief highlights that have been eclipsed by a decade that’s been less than competitive at times for the Gophers. And when I say "less than competitive," I mean Minnesota has been the Season 1 Jesse Pinkman to Wisconsin’s Season 5 Walter White (I miss you, "Breaking Bad").

Yet there's reason to think the rivalry will improve. What’s happening with "that school out West" isn't surprising -- Jerry Kill has done this before. He’s turned around programs at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois that had smaller budgets than Minnesota's. In his third year with the Gophers, UM has already won more games than last season (the Gophers are currently 8-3) and look poised to reach its second straight bowl game.

Not bad for a guy who inherited a team that went 3-9 in 2010.

Saturday, the Gophers showed signs of their turnaround on the Badgers for the first time in the Kill era. After his previous two meetings against Wisconsin saw his Minnesota teams outscored by a combined 80-26 in two losses, Kill’s 2013 squad stood toe-to-toe with the Badgers on a blustery day.

And not just during the game. Call it what you will -- saving face, pride, etc. -- but when the Badgers went to chop down the Gophers' goal posts at the end of the game, they were met by a contingent of maroon and gold that was having nothing of it. A heads up for those of you with delicate eardrums or perhaps young, impressionable children in the room: the video below has some words that are less than desirable.

Words were exchanged --fortunately, though, no punches were -- but the message was loud and clear: the Gophers aren’t satisfied with the status quo.

After winning four straight Big Ten games for the first time since 1973, Minnesota entered the weekend with a full head of steam and brimming confidence. The Gophers hung tough, led by a strong display from their defensive front seven, but ultimately shot themselves in the foot.

It was the first time in this writer’s short memory the Gophers weren’t thoroughly outplayed by the Badgers. If anything, they stuck around like a pesky fly in the room. There were no gigantic, eye-popping totals from Wisconsin’s ground game or offense; the Gophers actually battled the Badgers’ offensive line to a standstill for most of the game. Instead, the Gophers largely beat themselves (although no credit can be taken away from the job done by the top-tier Badger defense), turning the ball over three times and struggling to move the ball.

There’s no consolation prize waiting in the locker room because the Gophers finally played the Badgers competitively. Their trophy case meant to display the axe will continue to collect dust without an artifact to adorn it, because one fact still remains, a fact that Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland and cornerback Sojourn Shelton proudly displayed on a whiteboard after the game: 10 straight.

Even though it’s been a decade of red on the axe, it’s hard not to feel a slight thrill after Saturday’s game. This rivalry has lacked the good, old-fashioned hatred that made it special in the past. And that’s probably because it’s hard to hate a school that’s regarded as more of a running joke than a worthy opponent every year.

Saturday’s scrum by the goalposts proved that the flickering shards of embers in the rivalry have finally reignited. With a more competitive team and a turn-around in full swing, the dog days are seemingly over for Gopher football.

With the realignment of divisions approaching next year, Wisconsin not only regains Iowa in its division, but also Minnesota. Adding even more spice to mix is the fact that every year, the Badgers will conclude their conference season against the Gophers, making for the possibility that future games will decide the West Division's representative in the Big Ten Championship Game.

This excitement is all hypothetical, of course. But fresh off a Saturday where the game wasn't over until well after the final whistle, there's reason to think we're in for a wild ride the next several years in the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe.

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