Paul Bunyan's Axe, UW football at Minnesota

Members of the University of Wisconsin football team celebrate their eighth straight win over Minnesota by holding aloft Paul Bunyan's Axe at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011. Front row, from left, are quarterback Russell Wilson (16), offensive tackle Josh Oglesby (67), cornerback Marcus Cromartie (14), wide receiver Nick Toon (1), offensive linesman Jake Current (60), safety Aaron Henry (7), defensive back Antonio Fenelus (26), and running back Bradie Ewing (34).

M.P. King -- Wisconsin State Journal

The University of Wisconsin football team’s rivalry with Minnesota isn’t what it used to be.

At least that seems to be the popular perception. As most fans know, it’s the most-played rivalry in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but it also seems on the verge of being the most played-out.

Gophers senior linebacker Mike Rallis spoke for a significant portion of the fan bases when he said, “In a rivalry game, if you don’t ever win, it’s not really a rivalry.”

The Badgers have won eight straight and 15 of 17 in the series. They can match the longest win streak by either team in the series with a victory on Saturday. Minnesota won nine straight from 1933 to 1941.

UW is 5-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten Conference and putting things together on both sides of the ball, while appearing to be in the driver’s seat in the Leaders Division. Minnesota is racked with injuries after starting 4-0 against an easy non-conference slate and has since lost its first two conference games.

“Years when we’ve had a significantly better record compared to where Minnesota was at might have been some of our better games for the fans to watch,” UW coach Bret Bielema said.

That was certainly true earlier in Bielema’s tenure when three straight games, from 2007 to 2009, were decided by a touchdown or less. But the past two games have been decided by a combined 47 points.

During its current win streak, the Badgers are averaging 39.3 points per game and their average winning margin has been 15.5 points. Even the animosity that used to fuel this rivalry has waned following the departure of Tim Brewster, who had a contentious relationship with Bielema.

Second-year Gophers coach Jerry Kill provides none of those hard feelings. Bielema refers to him as a friend. “I think there’s just a general respect and admiration,” Bielema said.

This series is one-sided, has a dwindling number of close games, features no animosity and doesn’t even include teams from the same division anymore, since Minnesota is in the Legends. That leaves history and Paul Bunyan’s Axe, but is that enough?

With the Badgers, it apparently is. The players do more than just spout the party line during the week about the importance of this game, they genuinely seem to believe it.

“I don’t see any difference in our team,” senior defensive end Brendan Kelly said. “Coming in my freshman year and the way we were fighting for the Axe is the same way we’re fighting for the Axe right now. Even though we have it, we’re fighting to keep it.”

One of the reasons this rivalry continues to mean something to the UW players is the coaches make it important. Defensive backs coach Ben Strickland is the new “keeper of the rivalry,” the coach designated by Bielema to speak to the team about its history and significance.

“To me it’s an honor, growing up watching the rivalry then getting to play in it and now getting to talk about it and pass on the tradition and the history to the new generations and guys that follow,” Strickland said.

Strickland is a former UW defensive back who grew up in Brookfield. He also coached high school football for one year in Minnesota after his playing career ended. He gave the speech last year and it went so well Bielema picked him again.

The presentation ended by Strickland showing a video of the Gophers players running over to the UW sideline to grab the Axe, the trophy presented to the winning team, following Minnesota’s last victory, 37-34 in 2003.

Running backs coach Thomas Hammock, who was a graduate assistant at the time, and Strickland, who was being redshirted and went up on his own to watch the game, were the only current coaches or players in the program to be at that game.

“I don’t want to say it’s a shared fear,” Strickland said. “But understanding the accountability that takes place in order for that not to happen.

Kelly, from Eden Prairie, Minn., was in sixth grade at the time. Yet he and several of his teammates made frequent references this week to that scene.

“We have the Axe right now, but if they were to beat us then the Axe obviously changes possession to them,” said junior defensive tackle Beau Allen, who is from Minnetonka, Minn. “If that were to happen — which it won’t — they would run across our field and grab it. We just keep picturing that image and using it as a motivator.”

Perhaps that’s all a rivalry really needs to keep going. This one has endured world wars and plenty of other calamities and it can survive this down period, too.

“This rivalry game is different every year,” Strickland said. “I think every year is a challenge and every year is special. It’s what the kids want to make of this memory in the history of this rivalry.”

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