MADISON — Going through three head coaches and four years of the ups and downs of Wisconsin football, 12 seniors will play their final game at Camp Randall this Saturday against Minnesota in a quest for the Paul Bunyan axe and a spot in the Big Ten Championship.
The storylines in this weekend’s game are bigger than just senior night senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel said.
“This is the most important game of the season. If we don’t take care of our business this week, it could be said the season could be in vain. Our guys are focused.”
Biegel, an obvious NFL prospect, chose to stay for one more year at Wisconsin instead of entering the 2016 NFL Draft. Though he was projected to be drafted between the 3rd and 6th round and could have joined fellow Badgers teammate Joe Schobert, playing his senior year at Wisconsin was not something Biegel regretted.
“I knew coming back to Wisconsin was the right decision. I’ve been extremely thankful and blessed to be able to come back for another year, to have that option. It’s been a fun season, but the best is yet to come.”
The relatively small senior class is recognized as one of the most tightknit groups in this Wisconsin football program. Senior running back Dare Ogunbowale says that with all the changes in the football program, the group had to become close.
“Vince says it all the time. With all that happened, one thing stayed the same at that was the guys on the team, the guys playing and the guys between the lines. People look at that as how we are a close group, a group that played for Coach Bielema, Coach Anderson and now Coach Chryst.”
While the senior class has maintained an individual identity that has remained despite coaching changes, Ogunbowale said that in the past two years, they have taken on Coach Chryst’s identity and really looked up to him as the leader of the program.
And it wasn’t because of the coaches that players committed to Wisconsin. Senior safety Leo Musso said that while the changes brought the team closer, it was the Wisconsin identity that made them want to play at Camp Randall.
“They chose it for what Wisconsin is and how great the team is and the academics and everything that comes along with it,” he said.
This weekend comes with a lot of emotion for the guys that committed to Wisconsin four years ago. It’s not just senior night. It’s not just a potential Big Ten Championship berth. It’s not just the last game of the season. It’s axe week and that holds a lot of meaning for this senior class.
“This is what being in college football is all about. I’m a little bias. I think is one of the best rivalries in college football. The Paul Bunyan axe is an awesome trophy. We get to look at it every single day in our locker room. As a senior going out, I’m going to do everything I can and in my power to keep that axe down in our locker room, so our freshman can continue to look at that trophy every single day.”
Senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton has a particularly fond memory of his first axe game in 2013 when the Badgers beat Minnesota 20-7 at TCF Bank Stadium. In that game, the Badgers continued their 10 game win streak and linebacker Chris Borland lifted Shelton on his shoulders after the game in celebration.
“What does a freshman do when Borland comes at you and says get on my shoulders and carry this board. I was like, uh okay. That was fun, probably one of my favorite moments.”
It’s been three seasons since that first axe game for Wisconsin seniors, and it hasn’t quite set in that it will be their last.
“It’s been a tough week,” Shelton said. “Not bad, but just how far I’ve come as a freshman to where I am now and just how fast time flies. We still got this game and hopefully some games after and a bowl game and after the bowl game, that’s when I’ll feel it the most. It’ll be cool just playing in front of this stadium one last time.”
And with Thanksgiving this week players are thankful for the comradery of this team and all they have accomplished together these four years.
“This is a very great team, a fun team to be a part of. Great locker room. We’ve grown very close. I would say that is the biggest thing I’m thankful for, these guys, being a captain, being able to represent them and having relationships with all of them,” Ogunbowale said.
The best may just be yet to come for Wisconsin Badgers. They are playing for many things on Saturday. Most importantly they are playing for themselves, they are playing for their fans and they are playing for the tradition of Wisconsin football.
“I knew we had a special team going into the season, but to finally put it together and win the big games that we did, the trials we’ve had to overcome with injuries, it’s been a fun group to be part of. Going into the season you have hopes, you have milestones you want to accomplish but to be able to actually living it, to be in it, to be in the Big West conversation, to be in the Big Ten Championship, to be in the playoff picture, it’s all fun to be a part of. That’s what being a college football player is all about. That’s what you dream about,” Biegel said.