Mariano Sori-Marin was a freshman in 2018, not yet a starting linebacker for the Gophers, and he remembers well the regular season-ending trip to Wisconsin — especially the smell.
The Gophers, who ended a 14-game losing streak to the Badgers with a 37-15 romp, celebrated the victory for Paul Bunyan's Axe by emptying cans of Axe body spray, provided by coach P.J. Fleck, in the cramped visitors' locker room at Camp Randall Stadium.
"I remember I could barely breathe because everybody was spraying so much,'' Sori-Marin recalled, laughing. "Anybody who's used Axe, you know that's some strong stuff. So, we're spraying it out of control. And everybody was coughing because it was so strong in there.''
Four years later, the Gophers are returning to Madison on Saturday in hopes of retaining Paul Bunyan's Axe, which they won 23-13 last year at Huntington Bank Stadium. The game is Minnesota's final chance to lord a trophy over one of their traditional rivals after the Gophers lost 13-10 to Iowa last week.
While the Hawkeyes still remain a hurdle for Fleck and his team in his sixth year as Minnesota's coach, the Gophers (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) have put the Axe battle with Wisconsin (6-5, 4-4) on more even terms. The Badgers have won three of the five meetings since 2017, denying the Gophers a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game in 2019. The Gophers returned the favor last year, preventing the Badgers from visiting Indianapolis and jumping around with the field-storming fans as a certain Wisconsin-adopted House of Pain song pulsated as the soundtrack.
"Rivalries are always important,'' Fleck said. "That's what makes them rivalries. That's what makes last week hurt so much. It's because it matters. … There's an equal belief in what we do on both sidelines. It's who can find a way to do it better on that day for those three hours.''
For Minnesota, a rivalry game comes at an opportune time after the emotional loss to Iowa. Fall off the bike, get right back on and try again, is the team's approach. Fleck and his coaching staff quickly put the loss to the Hawkeyes behind them on Sunday and turned their focus to Wisconsin.
"When you got the right men in the room, they're able to just move on,'' defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said. "It's part of life. We're all going to have different setbacks in our life.''
While both the Gophers and Badgers saw their Big Ten West title hopes vanish last week, the game still carries meaning for both squads. Wisconsin is 4-2 under interim coach Jim Leonhard, and a victory would complete an impressive turnaround after a 2-3 start that led to Paul Chryst's firing. Like the Gophers, the Badgers are trying to improve their positioning for a bowl game.
There also are statistical records to chase for the Gophers. Sixth-year senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim leads the nation with 152.4 rushing yards per game and 19 rushing touchdowns. With 103 rushing yards Saturday, he would break the single-season school record of 1,626 set by David Cobb in 2014. With 128 yards, Ibrahim would pass the program's career record of 4,654 set by Darrell Thompson from 1986-89.
In the end, it comes down to the Gophers trying to cap their regular season with a meaningful victory and ease the disappointment of goals not met. What better way to do it than against a rival, like they did last year and in 2018?
"I remember when we were on the field for like an hour, going back and forth with the Axe,'' senior safety Jordan Howden said of the 2018 win. "It was pretty cool. Coming in as a freshman, you don't know how big it is before you experience it, and just to see the emotions, especially the seniors, seeing them cry because we hadn't had the Axe in a long time.''