MADISON — Senior safety Leo Musso was 10 years old the last time the Wisconsin Badgers lost to their longtime rival the Minnesota Gophers. Did it surprise the Wisconsin native from Waunakee?
Not at all.
But don’t let 5 foot 10 playmaker’s confidence fool you for cockiness. The Wisconsin Badgers are not taking their 12-game winning streak for granted in a game that means a lot more than just a rivalry this weekend.
The 8-3 Minnesota Gophers, coming off a 29-12 win against Northwestern last weekend, may not have a chance to clinch the Big Ten West, but they are playing to the Paul Bunyan axe this Saturday at Camp Randall.
“They’re hungry to win and they’re a team that wants to go out there and be competitive in ball games. I know with speaking with them and speaking with people around the program they really put an extra big circle around this game of taking care of business and taking back the axe but best believe we’re going to do everything in our power to keep the ax where it belongs and that’s here in Madison, Wisconsin,” senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel said.
Axe week holds extra importance for the Badgers. It’s the last game of the season, the return of one of the longest rivalries in college football and a chance for the Badgers to return to Indianapolis to represent the Big Ten West in the Big Ten Championship.
Minnesota, however, is their only focus.
“We’re aware of the implications and the importance of this game,” Biegel said. “Obviously if we win this game we represent the Big Ten West in the championship game. More importantly, this is Minnesota. This is our next game on the schedule. This is our biggest game of the year and we’ve got to take care of business.”
Leading the Gophers is senior quarterback from Lakeville, Minn., Mitch Leidner.
“He’s a great quarterback,” Musso said. “He can make a lot of throws. He’s an athletic dude, and he’s been playing for the past couple years, so he’s got experience. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
This season Leidner has completed 153 of 261 throws for 1,882 yards with six touchdowns to eight interceptions. Having thrown an interception in the last three games, the Wisconsin secondary will look to take advantage of Leinder’s ability to give plays to the opposing defenses.
Musso also stressed the Minnesota running game, which has attributed to 2,109 yards and 32 touchdowns this season, will be a test for the defense on Saturday. Minnesota’s Rodney Smith currently has 210 carries for 1,039 yards for 15 touchdowns. He averages 4.9 yards a play.
Despite meeting, and beating, Minnesota every year for the past 12 years, new changes on the Minnesota coaching staff bring new challenges. Tracy Claeys is in his first full year as head coach, taking over for 21-year head coach Jerry Kill who had to retire due to health problems last year.
“Every year is new personnel, different type of scheme,” Biegel said of defensive strategies. “They’ve got a new head coach. Every year is different, and I’ve learned that from playing in college football now for four years. We are not overlooking them.”
It is not just about two solid college football programs. With only 266.8 miles of I-94 separating the two schools, it is a battle for the Midwest.
“I think the fans are invested in this as much as we are. They’ve got family in Minnesota. There’s ties on both sides. It’s a border battle.”
So Wisconsin looks to continue its 12-game winning streak against their rival. They look to win their sixth straight game. They look to move to 10-2 and clinch the Big Ten West. Energy is high for defensive players in what Musso called “one of the best rivalries in college football.”
And while defensive players like Biegel and cornerback Sojourn Shelton expressed respect for the Minnesota players and the football program, that cordiality will not be see Saturday in Camp Randall.
“I don’t have any problems with people from Minnesota, but you know I just dislike that team form playing. It’s a big game and a big rivalry,” Shelton said.
The Wisconsin Badgers play the Minnesota Gophers in the final game of the regular season this Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
As far as final thoughts from senior Shelton, “It’s a game we don’t lose.”