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To the winner: Badgers-Gophers rivalry all about the Axe

ON WISCONSIN <b>Brandon Williams' touchdown catch set the stage for a classic finish in the 2005 Badgers-Gophers matchup</b>
Brandon Williams' touchdown catch set the stage for a classic finish in the 2005 Badgers-Gophers matchup

Oct. 4, 2010

MADISON, Wis. -- As a means to introduce a new personality and analyst to its audience, the Big Ten Network used a highlight clip of former University of Wisconsin wide receiver Brandon Williams making a touchdown catch against Minnesota in 2005. This was no ordinary catch, either.

Williams caught a 21-yard pass from John Stocco in the end zone and held on to the football despite a head-hunting hit from Gophers safety Dominic Jones who was assessed a 15-yard personal foul penalty. “He tried to rip my helmet off,” Williams recalled wistfully.

The score and Taylor Mehlhaff’s successful conversion pulled the Badgers to within three of the Gophers, 34-31, with two minutes and 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter at the Metrodome. And thanks to the Jones penalty, the subsequent kickoff was from the 50.

The Badgers attempted an on-sides kick that bounded off the chest of Minnesota’s Trumaine Banks. Zach Hampton was the first player to the loose ball, but as he was trying to scoop it up, the ball skipped off his knee and ricocheted downfield with such force that the Gophers recovered it on their 8-yard-line.

Mike Lucas
UWBadgers.com Insider

Minnesota coach Glen Mason wasn’t about to get cute with his play calling and three Laurence Maroney runs fell one yard short of the first down. Mason thought about taking a safety, which would have handed the Badgers two points but provided the Gophers with a free kick from their own 20.

Except Mason was also cognizant of Brandon Williams’ return ability and the Badgers would have had enough time to get into field goal position with a decent runback.

Mason decided to punt.

The Badgers called for a punt block with Hampton and Ben Strickland running a game – a twist—up the middle.  Nobody picked up Strickland, who would have had a clear shot at the punter, Jason Kucek, if he had fielded the ball cleanly.  He didn’t.

Kucek dropped the snap, forcing him to improvise.

As he attempted to get off a desperation punt, UW freshman Jonathan Casillas blocked the kick and Strickland, now a member of the Badger coaching staff, recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown with 30 seconds remaining capping the most improbable comeback in series history.

“Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez told Mason at midfield during their post-game chat. Said Mason, “Except he had a smile on his face and I didn’t.”

Brandon Williams still smiles when he thinks about that sequence of events.

“It still ranks as one of my fondest memories,” he said. “The Minnesota game always meant a lot to the players because we didn’t want to lose the Axe. There’s a lot of history and mystique. And the Axe is always the first thing that comes to mind from those epic shootouts.”

Williams was reminded of that 2005 classic between the Gophers and the Badgers because of the touchdown video that preceded his recent appearance on one of the BTN’s studio shows. “That highlight was to introduce me to people so they could remember who I was,” he said.

Williams is serious about pursuing a career as a sportscaster. He’s scheduled to be part of the BTN’s game day show in early November when the Badgers play at Purdue. Williams, a St. Louis native, also has a role on the Fox pregame show for the St. Louis Rams.

In addition to teaching a financial planning class two days a week, he’s a volunteer football coach at his alma mater, Hazelwood East High School. He stays in touch with many of his old UW teammates and his former position coach, Henry Mason, the director of player personnel and external relations for the football program.

That dramatic ’05 comeback is high on Mason’s list of memorable Minnesota-Wisconsin games. “It’s all about bragging rights,” said Mason, who has been off the sidelines and out of coaching since suffering damage to his spinal cord in July of 2007.

“When you really learn to understand the rivalry is the year when you lose the Axe and the other team comes running across the field to your sidelines and takes the Axe. If that doesn’t raise the hair on the back of your neck, I don’t know what will.”

In 1995, Mason was exposed to the rivalry in the Metrodome. “As soon as you came out for the pregame warm-up, you knew it was a different kind of game,” he said. “There was a tremendous buzz in the air and we had as many people at the Dome as they did. You knew then it was a special game.”

It was also special because the Badgers took advantage of their special teams -- a 60-yard field goal by John Hall and a 100-yard kickoff return by Aaron Stecker -- and won a wild 34-27 slugfest with the Gophers snapping a two-game losing streak.

Defensive tackle Jason Maniecki sealed the win by sacking quarterback Cory Sauter on fourth down from the UW 20. During a timeout prior to that play, the Badgers plotted their strategy. “We basically told Maniecki to kill everyone,” said linebacker Eric Unverzagt.

Two years later, the Badgers returned to the Metrodome without Mason, who was still recovering from back surgery. Mason watched the game on television from his Madison home and communicated with his receivers via a cell phone.

“You try to make as many adjustments as you can to what you’re seeing on TV,” he said, “but you don’t get to see as near as much on the screen. It was certainly an interesting way to coach.”

There was only one glitch.

“We were going to keep the phone line opened,” Mason said, “but Donald Hayes kept forgetting and kept hanging up on me. It would be like, ‘Donald, this is what you’ve got to do.’ And he’d say, ‘OK.’ And the phone would go dead. So we had to re-dial a few times.”

The Badgers won, 21-20. After returning to Madison that night, the players brought the Axe to Mason’s home. “We just sat around and celebrated and had a great time,” Mason said. “It was certainly one game to remember. In this series, it’s always a big deal when you win.”

Mason knows something about rivalries, too, dating back to his high school days in Missouri when he was playing for the Marshall Owls against the Chillicothe Hornets. “It was a game where you marked the calendar,” he said, “and you held those bragging rights for 365 days.”

Mason recently got an e-mail from a player that he coached in high school.

“He’s now at Chillicothe,” he said, “and I’m debating whether I should return his e-mail.”

Now that’s a serious rivalry. Not unlike the Badgers and Gophers.

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