Mariano Sori-Marin was a freshman in 2018, not yet a starting linebacker for the Gophers, and he clearly remembers the regular season finish to Wisconsin – especially the smell.
Ending a 14-game losing streak against the Badgers with a 37-15 romp, the Gophers celebrated victory for Paul Bunyan’s Ax by emptying cans of Ax body spray, supplied by coach PJ Fleck, into the cramped visitors’ locker room at Camp Randall stadium .
“I remember I could barely breathe because everyone was spraying so much,” Sori-Marin recalls with a laugh. “Anyone who’s used Ax knows it’s strong stuff. So we spray it by hand. And everyone was coughing because it was so strong there.”
Four years later, the Gophers return to Madison on Saturday in hopes of keeping Paul Bunyan’s Axe, which they won 23-13 at Huntington Bank Stadium last year. The game is Minnesota’s last chance to clinch a trophy over one of their traditional rivals after the Gophers lost to Iowa 13-10 last week.
While the Hawkeyes continue to be a hurdle for Fleck and his team in his sixth year as Minnesota coach, the Gophers (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) have lost the Ax battle with Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4 ) initiated more even terms. The Badgers have won three of their five encounters since 2017, denying the Gophers a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in 2019. a certain Wisconsin-adopted House of Pain song pulsed like the soundtrack.
“Rivalry is always important,” said Fleck. “That’s what makes them rivalries. That’s what made last week hurt so much. It’s because it matters. … There’s an equal belief in what we’re doing on both sidelines. It’s who can find a way to to do better on that day for those three hours.”
For Minnesota, a rivalry game comes at an opportune time after the emotional loss to Iowa. Falling off the bike, getting right back on and trying again is the team’s approach. Fleck and his coaching staff quickly put the loss to the Hawkeyes behind them on Sunday and turned their focus to Wisconsin.
“If you have the right men in the room, they can just keep going,” Defense Coordinator Joe Rossi said. “It’s part of life. We all face different setbacks in our lives.”
While both the Gophers and Badgers saw their Big Ten West title hopes vanish last week, the game still has meaning for both squads. Wisconsin is 4-2 under interim coach Jim Leonhard, and a win would mark an impressive turnaround after a 2-3 start that led to the firing of Paul Chryst. Like the Gophers, the Badgers are trying to improve their positioning for a bowl game.
There are also some statistical records to hunt for the Gophers. Sixth year senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim leads the country with 152.4 rushing yards per game and 19 rushing touchdowns. With 103 rushing yards on Saturday, Ibrahim would break the single-season school record of 1,626 set by David Cobb in 2014. With 128 yards, Ibrahim would pass the program’s career record of 4,654 set by Darrell Thompson from 1986-89.
In the end, the bottom line is that the Gophers are trying to finish their regular season with a meaningful win and assuage the disappointment over missed goals. What better way to do it than against a rival, like last year and in 2018?
“I remember we were on the field for about an hour going back and forth with the axe,” senior safety Jordan Howden said of the 2018 win. “It was pretty cool. When you come in as a freshman, you don’t know how big it is before you experience it, and just to see the emotions, especially the seniors, to see them cry because we hadn’t had the Ax in a long time.”