MADISON, Wis. - Paul Bunyan's Axe towered over the McClain Center practice field Wednesday evening. All the Wisconsin football players found their way over to touch the six-foot trophy as they left for the night, and normally stoic players cast furtive glances at the oversized icon during their interviews.
Of course, the Badgers have grown a little used to having the axe around. It's been stowed in their Camp Randall locker room for the last eight years, dating back to their 38-14 win over their archrivals, the Minnesota Golden Gophers, in 2004. Since then the Gophers have nearly stolen the trophy back from the Badgers a few times, but fell short by a field goal in both 2008 and 2009.
"We're so used to having it here," defensive tackle and Minnesota native Beau Allen said after practice Wednesday. "It's been here for eight years and we're not about to let them (take it.)"
It presents an interesting problem for the Badgers, many of whom weren't even in high school when the Gophers last darted across the field to steal the axe. The Badgers haven't dealt with that kind of pain first-hand, but it's not something they're hoping to experience any time soon.
"We just kind of keep picturing that image and using it as a motivator to not let that happen," Allen said.
In fact, senior linebacker Mike Taylor is hoping he'll finally be able to lay hands on the gigantic trophy after a game, in addition to making sure the axe stays in Madison during his whole tenure at Wisconsin.
"That's what it all comes down to, keeping the axe, especially since it's my last year," Taylor said. "Growing up in Wisconsin, this is the one game you watch, the one game you wanted to play. It's such a big game, especially for Wisconsin kids to represent your state."
However, Taylor knows that there will be a whole sideline full of players opposite him that will be just as hungry to lay their hands on the trophy for the first time in their careers.
"You can throw the records out the window," Taylor said. "They really don't matter. It's obviously a big game for both teams."
A nine-game winning streak would tie the longest ever streak in the history of the rivalry, which was originally set by the Gophers from 1933-1941. The series is the most-played rivalry at the FBS level, but linebackers coach Andy Buh said he wasn't aware of that until this week.
Buh is one of many new faces on the team this season, so he took a special interest in the history lesson assistant coach Ben Strickland gave to the team before the start of practice Tuesday. Strickland played for the Badgers and was elected a team captain in 2007, but one of the biggest plays of his career came against the Gophers in 2005 when recovered a blocked punt in the endzone help the Badgers hold on to the axe for another year.
"He's been part of the rivalry- there wasn't a better guy on our staff to give that speech and he did a phenomenal job," Buh said.
But even though this will be his first year with the Badgers, Buh is no stranger to axe trophies. Buh has coached on both sides of the Stanford-California rivalry during his career and knows what it's like to try and keep a streak going, and also what it feels like to see it snapped.
"We're in a situation where we've won eight straight, and we definitely don't want to be on the losing end of this rivalry," Buh said.
Balls tend to bounce in funny ways during rivalry games, but the Badgers are hoping they can make sure they can keep an eye on the axe in their locker room for at least another year.
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