The Voice: Battle for the Axe can't be taken for granted

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The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgCall me paranoid, but Saturday's Wisconsin-Minnesota football game has me a bit concerned.

The annual Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe has been a one-sided affair of late. The Badgers have won the previous eight meetings. There have been some blowouts, including last year's 42-13 pounding in Minneapolis, but four of the last eight games have been one-score contests.

The most famous of those close encounters is the 2005 Miracle in the Metrodome, when Jonathan Casillas blocked a punt, and Ben Strickland recovered in the end zone with 30 seconds to play, giving Wisconsin a stunning 38-34 victory.

When one team is dominating another, it is easy to say it isn't much of a rivalry. Such was the case when Iowa had a 20-year run of not losing to Wisconsin. The Badgers busted that streak with a 13-10 decision in 1997.

Given Wisconsin's string of success against the Gophers, the words "isn't much of a rivalry" seem to be popping up again, be it from fans, media or other observers.

Kinda makes me cringe.

When I prepare for a game broadcast, I try to consider what those on the other side might be thinking. Compared to a coach or a player's preparation, what I do is pretty low-level stuff, but it never hurts to put yourself in the other guy's shoes.

In this case, the Gophers have issues. After a 4-0 start, the Gophers have lost two straight games. Last week, things could not have started much worse. A muffed opening kickoff that Northwestern recovered. The Wildcats needed one play to score. On the ensuing kickoff, the Gophers' return man fielded the kick, but promptly lost his footing, giving Minnesota lousy field position.

Eventually they did settle down a bit, but the Cats still won the game 21-13.

Then there is the issue of Coach Jerry Kill's health. After finishing with his media obligations last Saturday, Kill suffered another seizure. He has a history of dealing with seizures. Thankfully, once again, he seems to have recovered quickly.

Keep in mind that, while Kill's situation is unusual, most of his staff has been with him for several years. That includes offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. It only makes sense to believe they know what to do, and they know how Kill runs his program. It is hardly ideal, but when Coach Kill needs medical attention, it is logical to believe that the assistants are prepared to handle it.

On the field, the health of quarterback MarQueis Gray is a key storyline. After an injury on Sept. 15, Gray returned to the field last week and made some plays. Listed at 250 pounds, Gray is a dangerous runner, and the statistics indicate he is an improved passer.

However, he suffered another ankle injury in the third quarter.

From what I have seen and heard, all of this seems to have at least some folks expecting the Badgers to keep possession of the Axe without much in the way of drama.

Look, if that is how it plays out, great. I just think assuming such things can be extremely dangerous. Especially in the Big Ten. Especially this year.

If I'm on the other side, I am sick and tired of watching my opponent take the victory lap. If I'm on the other side, you better believe it is a big-time rivalry.

That's because it is. Lopsided in recent years? Yes. But in Wisconsin and in Minnesota, that does not change what this rivalry means.

Never has. Never will.

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