Gophers must grind to get Axe

Paul Bunyan's Axe has to be one of the coolest trophies in college football. Who wouldn't want to pick up a giant axe and swing it around after winning a game? And yet, the axe might as well be Excalibur for Minnesota, more mythical than real.

"As far as I know, nobody on our team has ever touched it," Gophers senior linebacker Keanon Cooper told ESPN.com this week.

The axe has stayed planted firmly in Wisconsin soil since 2004, as the most-played rivalry in the FBS has also become one of the most lopsided in recent years. The Gophers will look to snap an eight-year losing streak against the Badgers this Saturday in Madison. The rivalry hasn't gained much attention of late because of its predictability.

"It's been a while," linebacker Mike Rallis said. "That's on us. We need to change that and get this back to where it's a big deal, it's a big game again."

There's little secret as to why Wisconsin -- which is 15-2 in the last 17 Axe games -- has so thoroughly dominated the series of late. The Badgers haven't scored fewer than 31 points in the last eight meetings, averaging 39.3 points during their winning streak. Wisconsin has scored 42 and 41 points in the last two years.

Minnesota's defense simply hasn't been able to keep up. That unit looks much improved this year and hopes to turn in a much better showing.

"I think we're better because guys are playing fast this year," Rallis said. "We're more comfortable in the system and we're a better overall team. At the same time, if we don't bring our 'A' game, they're going to exploit us."

That's what happened in the Gophers last two games, losses to Iowa and Northwestern. In both, they fell behind big early while getting gashed by the running game. Mental mistakes and poor tackling played key roles. The defense rebounded in the second half of both games, allowing no offensive points after halftime, but the damage had already been done.

Now a team that started 4-0 is in danger of suffering a three-game losing streak and seeing its hopes of going to a bowl for the first time since 2009 dwindle.

"This is a real important game," head coach Jerry Kill said. "It comes at a time when our program needs to play well. We need to step up a little bit."

And that means stopping Wisconsin's running game, which looked rejuvenated last week at Purdue when the Badgers rolled up 467 rushing yards. Minnesota might have the misfortune of catching its rival at exactly the wrong time. But the Gophers know exactly what to expect.

"When you play Wisconsin, it's going to be a man's game," Cooper said. "There aren't a lot of tricks or misdirections. They're going to run right at you, and it's up to you as a man to stop it."

That hasn't happened for Minnesota in two full presidential cycles. If the Gophers ever want to feel that axe in their hand again, their defense had better find a way to stay off the chopping block.