CHICAGO – Throughout Big Ten Media Days, P.J. Fleck made one point multiple times, from his news conference to his breakout session to the kickoff luncheon.
No, it wasn’t (only) “row the boat.” It was that the Gophers finally topping Wisconsin in the border battle marked a turning point for his program.
“Getting the axe back, I thought, meant a lot for both teams,” Fleck said Thursday. “I know, maybe, Wisconsin is not happy that we have the axe, but it’s healthy for the rivalry. Trust me, Wisconsin didn’t let us win. But it’s healthy.”
From Fleck’s perspective, a 14-year drought caused Gophers fans to doubt that Paul Bunyan’s Axe would ever return to Minnesota.
“Well, winning that game, especially how we won it and where we won it and hadn’t won there since 1994,” Fleck said, “breaking that mold creates this hope for the future, and that’s what I hope our state of Minnesota understands is we’re doing things that haven’t been done in a very long time.”
Wisconsin, though, didn’t see it as such a defining moment.
“That’s cool that that’s how they want to use it when they look at one game,” Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Orr said. “I don’t know if it’s something I would do unless I, like, won the Big Ten Championship.
“I don’t look at losing that game as something that’s going to make us go down the toilet bowl now.”
Center Tyler Biadasz echoed that point, saying while the Badgers are “upset” about that 2018 loss, they aren’t “damaged to the point where [they’re] not hungry enough for it back.” They didn’t even need Fleck’s reminder: An empty trophy case the players walk past in the locker room all the time never lets them forget.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said he understood what Fleck meant about keeping the rivalry healthy because it’s better when the game is competitive. The 2019 installment might have even more fire, as Orr stopped himself from becoming too worked up on the topic in order to save that energy for November.
With the Big Ten West a shot in the dark in terms of who will win the division, Wisconsin and the Gophers should have a fairly even matchup. Both are undecided on a starting quarterback. The Gophers have slew of strong running backs and receivers. The Badgers have Heisman Trophy-hopeful running back Jonathan Taylor.
Taylor said the momentum from a rivalry result can either boost or drop a team. The Gophers chose one side of that. The Badgers reject the other.
“That’s something they’re using to fuel themselves,” Taylor said. “Whatever that is, whatever you find to fuel yourself for the season, use it. Run with it.”