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Gophers, Badgers meet with Axe to grind

10/1/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Eric Decker has accomplished just about everything in his Minnesota career.

He's already regarded as one of the greatest wide receivers in team history, setting the Gophers' career receptions record earlier this season (212). He twice has set the team's single-season receptions record and was a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award last year. Considered the greatest No. 7 in team history, Decker's picture hangs in the team's home locker room, not far from where the senior dresses before games. He also starred for Minnesota's baseball team and was selected in each of the past two Major League Baseball drafts, most recently by his hometown Twins in June.

At times, Decker carries the Minnesota offense.

But he has never carried Paul Bunyan's Axe.

"It would be amazing," he said. "That's one thing I told myself. Before I leave, I want to be able to carry that axe around. I've grown up in Minnesota. I understand what it means to have the axe. I've been around the game to see how exciting it is when we do finally get it.

"It's special."

Decker gets his final chance to hoist the axe Saturday as Wisconsin visits TCF Bank Stadium (ESPN, noon ET). The Badgers have kept the enormous rivalry trophy since 2004, and last year they rallied to beat the Gophers in Madison as Decker watched from the sideline with an ankle injury.

Decker considers Wisconsin the Gophers' top rival, and the feeling is mutual from the Badgers, who try to preserve their perfect record in Minneapolis.

"I’ve seen what it means to the people of Wisconsin," Badgers junior quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "It's a pride thing. We want to be able to have that axe for the next year."

A few subplots add to the always intense rivalry this year.

Both teams are off to good starts. The longest rivalry in the FBS returns to Minnesota's campus for the first time since 1981 after 13 meetings at the Metrodome, where 15,000 to 20,000 Wisconsin fans would regularly show up. There are several connections between the teams, including four Gophers assistants (Kevin Cosgrove, Ron Lee, Tim Davis, Thomas Hammock) who previously spent time at Wisconsin.

Plus, both teams are hitting their stride on offense. Wisconsin ranks second in the Big Ten in both scoring (36 ppg) and total offense (428 ypg). Tolzien leads the Big Ten and ranks 13th nationally in pass efficiency (164.3 rating), while sophomore running back John Clay ranks second in the league in rushing (99.5 ypg).

"I’m pleased with the direction we’re going and yet you have high expectations," Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "The players do, and we do for them. We’re going to need everyone. That’s what’s fun about this group. For us to do well, we need everyone. There’s not just one guy who can just carry it.”

Tolzien has done much of the heavy lifting. An afterthought in the quarterback race during the spring, his consistency pushed him over the top in camp and he continues to gain confidence.

"We’ve seen Scotty do the things he’s been doing, but you never know until it’s real and in games," Chryst said. "In that sense, you’re happy to see that. He’s a guy who works extremely hard to prepare himself. He’s been able to go out and relax and play. Most importantly, the guys around him are playing and going along with him."

The Gophers come off their most complete offensive performance of the season in a win at Northwestern. Decker did his thing, catching two touchdown passes, but the Gophers finally established the run behind sophomore running back Duane Bennett (three TDs).

The threat of the run could be enough to get Decker free in a Badgers secondary that has struggled at times this year.

"To win in the Big Ten, you have to run the ball and we did a great job of that last week," Decker said. "Once those things open up and we start making plays that way, they have to go back to a true defense and they can't overplay certain sides."

Neither team has struggled to find motivation this week.

"Paul Bunyan's Axe is very meaningful to the state of Minnesota, also to the state of Wisconsin," Gophers head coach Tim Brewster said. "We come together and fight like crazy for 60 minutes and see who can carry the axe. Saturday's going to be a great deal."