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Wisconsin player Jim Leonhard has no shortage of rivalry motivation in Minnesota > Minnesota

MADISON, Wisconsin — Linebacker Chris Borland stood at the McClain Center during the week of Wisconsin’s 2012 rivalry game against Minnesota and shared a story that has become etched into program history over the decades and explains why the game meant so much.

According to the story, in the 1930s or 40s, a Badgers football player suffered a finger injury severe enough to jeopardize his status for the Minnesota game. A decision was made quickly. He would rather have the finger amputated than waste time allowing it to heal. The message, Borland recalled, was clear.

“Better to lose a finger than fumble to Minnesota,” he said. “That kind of sums it up.”

There was a Wisconsin native named Francis “Pug” Lund who played halfback in Minnesota and had his left pinky amputated in the spring of 1934 for breaking it so many times it couldn’t be bent. However, there is no evidence that a Wisconsin player did the same, let alone in the run-up to the game against Minnesota.

But the fact that the renditions that have been told in Wisconsin over the years are probably not true is beside the point.

“It’s a very well-known story around here,” said Tyler Beach, the Badgers offensive lineman. “This game means so much to everyone. This is the one game that, in my opinion, means everything. There’s a reason this game is often the last game of the year. That’s because it’s a hell of a deal. Much hate each other. But that’s what you love.”

The rivalry will be renewed when Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4 Big Ten) plays Minnesota (7-4, 4-4) in the regular season finals at 2:30 p.m. CT at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday. Players say there’s nothing quite like swinging Paul Bunyan’s ax over the goalposts after the game, parading the trophy around and bragging about rights in next year’s border struggle. Even as things change over generations, the most-played series in FBS has stood the test of time because of the ingrained hatred and how much the outcome helps define a team’s legacy.

“I don’t like them,” said Jim Leonhard, interim coach for the Badgers, who played four games against Minnesota as a Wisconsin player. “But I respect her.”

As a player, Jim Leonhard went 2-2 against Minnesota from 2001 to 2004. (Jeff Hanisch / USA today)

After a dominant Wisconsin streak of 14 straight wins from 2004-2017, the streak is as lively as ever. Minnesota has won two of their last four matchups, including a 23-13 win last season that kept Wisconsin from winning the Big Ten West. Nose guard Keeanu Benton said Wisconsin ran a video in Minnesota’s weight room Monday morning, and its fans participated in Wisconsin’s traditional “Jump Around” song, played over loudspeakers at Huntington Bank Stadium after the Gophers’ win.

“It still gets under my skin to this day,” Benton said.

In Wisconsin, former players generally speak about their experiences in the rivalry to educate current Badgers and remind them of the importance of the game. Wide receiver Chimere Dike said former linebacker Chris Orr, now the program’s director of player development, shared his thoughts Monday.

Orr was part of the 2018 Wisconsin team that lost to Minnesota for the first time since 2003. Players were harshly reminded of the loss throughout the offseason when a picture of Minnesota celebrating was placed in Wisconsin’s display case in place of the trophy in the dressing room. As the 2019 team captain, Orr requested that the image be uploaded again during game week. Wisconsin hammered Minnesota 38-17 to tear the West Division away from the Gophers.

Badgers players are hoping for a similar reaction this time. Wisconsin cornerback Alexander Smith posted an Instagram Story this week about the empty trophy box detailing the result of last season’s game with the caption, ‘Need it!!’ Beach said it was ‘devastating’ , having to walk past the display case for a whole year.

“Every time you look at that, it pisses you off for the day and puts strain on your shoulder,” said tight end Jack Eschenbach. “It sucks and somehow it just motivates everyone that much more.”

If Wisconsin is to avoid its first two-game losing streak in the series since the 1993-94 season, the Badgers must do what they couldn’t do last season. Wisconsin led Minnesota 10-6 at halftime thanks to safety Scott Nelson’s 25-yard interception return for a touchdown. But the Badgers’ offense faltered at critical moments, as has happened all too often over the past three seasons.

Minnesota defenseman Justin Walley ripped a pass from Graham Mertz away from receiver Kendric Pryor on the right touchline early in the third quarter, leading to a Gophers touchdown two games later. The Wisconsin offense had six points on two field goals throughout the game.

“They surpassed us physically last year and finished,” said Leonhard. “We had the lead at half time and they finished the game. They made plays in the second half to swing the game and create momentum and get us on our heels and we couldn’t overcome it. They’re okay with shortening the game, playing hard, playing on the field, finding ways to make turnovers and making it a second-half game.

“We have to win. We must dominate the line of scrimmage. This will be a good exchange of blows. You have to do plays. You need to make big plays at the perimeter, in the running game, in the passing game. You have to generate sales.”

Players said this week they didn’t want to apologize over last season’s performance, but indicated many Badgers were ill with flu-like symptoms when they entered this game. Anyway, Minnesota choked Wisconsin. Eschenbach said Minnesota’s defense essentially has a counter for “everything we’ve done.” Running back Braelon Allen was held for 47 yards on 17 carries and failed to reach the 100-yard mark for the first time in eight games since becoming a regular member of the running back rotation.

“Last year they just swarmed to the ball,” Allen said. “Every time I got the ball, I was probably attacked by no fewer than three guys in every single game. it was crazy I’ve never seen anything like it. We know that when we go into the game. They will swarm the ball, play fast, play hard, a very physical team. We definitely have to prepare for that.”

Minnesota conquered Paul Bunyan’s Ax with a 23-13 win last year. (Harrison Barden / USA today)

Wisconsin has played three Big Ten teams that rank in the top 10 in goal defense and total defense nationally — Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State — and lost every game this season. Minnesota, which ranks third in goal defense and seventh in total defense with Illinois, should be just as impressive. In Minnesota’s last four games, the Gophers have dropped zero, 13, three, and 13 points. The Wisconsin defense, meanwhile, has to contend with running back Mohamed Ibrahim, whose 152.4 yards per game and 19 touchdowns lead the FBS.

Beach acknowledged that this time the rivalry had another layer. He noted that the outcome of last season’s game opened the door to some uncomfortable hypothetical questions about what a win in Wisconsin might have meant for Paul Chryst and his future with the Badgers. Wisconsin got off to a 3-1 start — the team’s worst since Barry Alvarez’s 1990 debut season — to win seven straight games and needed another win to reach its fourth Big Ten title game under Chryst.

Instead, Wisconsin lagged behind. Chryst was fired after a 2-3 start in five games this season and replaced by Leonhard, with Wisconsin on track to miss a Big Ten championship game appearance for the third straight season. Perhaps, Beach said, beating Minnesota and qualifying for the championship game would have changed the course of history.

Just another log to add to rivalry fire.

“It made me wonder what if,” Beach said. “When all of these things were happening, I asked myself this question because I was thinking about it. A game removed from perhaps another plot for us. I think it will be important to say that to the boys in particular. Just letting you know these guys ruined last year’s season. ruined it As you delve into the what-if questions and share these things, maybe you’ll let them know that that’s part of it too. Guys who come into this game with passion will be hugely important.”

(Top Photo by Braelon Allen: David Berding/Getty Images)