The Minnesota-UW clash is the most-played FBS rivalry in the nation, with the teams set to meet for the 131st time. The Badgers lead the all-time series 62-60-8.
Saturday marks the 73rd battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the trophy that goes to the game’s winner. It first was awarded in 1948, and UW has gone 44-25-3 in those games. Minnesota last won the Axe in 2018.
Collin Larsh kicked a 30-yard field goal in overtime to give UW a 20-17 victory over the Gophers last season.
Senior cornerback Faion Hicks said the game between the teams is the most important one the Badgers play each season.
“You don’t want to lose (the) Axe,” Hicks said. “That’s the No. 1 thing again. No other game matters but this one. This is what you work all year for, for this game, that last game of the year. Go out there and win, man. It’s going to be a fight, it’s going to be physical. But at the end of the day, man, we just don’t like each other.”
The Gophers rank No. 12 nationally and third in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 103.6 yards per game. UW ranks 10th nationally in rushing offense with 229.4 yards per game.
Only two Gophers opponents have rushed for more than 144 yards this season, and five have been held to less than 100 yards.
Minnesota is fourth nationally in fewest opponent rushing attempts (327), 13th in opponent rushing yards (1,140), 18th in opponent rushing touchdowns (10) and 23rd in opponent yards per carry (3.49).
Experience at QB
Fifth-year senior quarterback Tanner Morgan is in his third full season as Minnesota’s starter. He’s the winningest signal-caller in program history with a 25-12 record as a starter.
He ranks first in school history in career completion percentage (61.2%), efficiency rating (150.88) and touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio (2.20).
Morgan has completed 130 of 220 passes for 1,736 yards and nine touchdowns against seven interceptions for an efficiency rating of 132.5 this season. He has also rushed for two touchdowns.
Morgan ranks fourth in the Big Ten in yards per completion (13.35) and sixth in yards per pass attempt (7.89).
True freshman Mar’Keise Irving and redshirt freshman Ky Thomas took on a bigger role after backs Mohamed Ibrahim, Trey Potts, Bryce Williams and Preston Jelen suffered season-ending injuries.
Thomas had a career-high 139 yards and a touchdown while Irving went for 105 yards and a score in Minnesota’s win against Maryland on Oct. 23. It was the first time since at least 1932 that two Minnesota freshmen ran for at least 100 yards in the same game.
Both backs again ran for more than 100 yards in an Oct. 30 win against Northwestern, and Thomas also posted 100-yard rushing games against Iowa (Oct. 13) and Indiana (Oct. 20).
Thomas has played in seven games and leads the team in rushing attempts (127) and yards (625). He’s scored four rushing touchdowns, and his four 100-yard rushing games this season are the most for a Minnesota freshman since Ibrahim in 2018.
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck recently signed a new seven-year contract that takes him through the 2028 season. It raises his annual salary from $4.65 million to $5.1 million.
Fleck, in his his fifth season at Minnesota, owns a 33-23 record and guided the Gophers to their most wins in a season (11 in 2019) since 1904. He was named Big Ten Coach of the Year that season after beating two top-10 teams. He also led the Gophers to their first New Year’s Day bowl win since 1962, a 31-24 win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
Photos: Wisconsin Badgers edge Nebraska Cornhuskers to retain Freedom Trophy