The Gophers entered the weekend needing to hit on a three-team parlay to win the Big Ten's West Division title and a trip to Indianapolis for the conference championship game.
A Nebraska win over Iowa on Friday, plus Saturday triumphs by Purdue over Indiana and Minnesota over Wisconsin, would give the Gophers their first division crown.
Go ahead and rip up that parlay ticket.
Nebraska's implosion in a 28-21 loss to No. 16 Iowa — the Cornhuskers led 21-9 early in the fourth quarter only to surrender a blocked punt for a touchdown, a safety and 19 unanswered points — means only the Hawkeyes or Wisconsin can win the West.
If the No. 14 Badgers (8-3, 6-2) beat the Gophers, Wisconsin will win the division via its head-to-head win over the Hawkeyes. If Minnesota (7-4, 5-3) wins, Iowa (10-2, 7-2) will make the trip to Indy.
Instead of a division title up for grabs on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium, the Gophers will focus on winning a game against their most bitter rival and the Paul Bunyan's Axe trophy that goes to the victor.
"This is why you come to the University of Minnesota,'' Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Monday. "This is what makes college football really special, a game like this. ... These guys understand what's at stake, the tradition, the history and what we need to be able to do.''
Beating the Badgers for that Axe, of course, has been much easier said than done for the Gophers.
Wisconsin has won the Axe in 16 of the past 17 years, including the past two after the Gophers ended a 14-year drought in the series in 2018. Two years ago, ninth-ranked Minnesota entered the game 10-1 and a game ahead of No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings, but the Badgers left Minneapolis with a 38-17 win, the Axe and the West title. Last year, Wisconsin won 20-17 in overtime after the Gophers missed a 36-yard field-goal attempt on the first possession of the extra session.
"We've been close a lot of times, but we've got to find a way to be better,'' Fleck said.
The Gophers will have to attain that goal against a Wisconsin team that has hit its stride after a 1-3 start, winning its past seven games by an average score of 32-10. The Badgers are allowing 233.3 total yards and 59.8 rushing yards per game, both the fewest in the nation. On offense, 238-pound freshman running back Braelon Allen has rushed for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns during the win streak. Quarterback Graham Mertz, who threw six interceptions in early losses to Penn State and Notre Dame, has settled in to become an effective game manager who has a go-to target in tight end Jake Ferguson (39 catches, 390 yards).
It's meat-and-potatoes football, and it has Wisconsin on the cusp of its fifth West title in eight years.
"It's going to be one of the most physical football games in all of college football in 2021,'' Gophers offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. said.
Behind their veteran offensive line, the Gophers have emphasized the run all season, ranking fifth nationally in attempts per game (46.6) and third in time of possession (35:37). That likely will be difficult to replicate against Wisconsin's defense, so the passing game takes on more importance. Sanford called a more diversified game last week in the Gophers' 35-14 win at Indiana, and getting quarterback Tanner Morgan in rhythm early against the Badgers is key.
"We'll have to be creative in what we do to be able present different looks,'' Sanford said. "You're not just going to be able to line up against a team like Wisconsin and run the exact same play over and over and expect to get 6 yards a pop.''
Two weeks ago against Iowa, the passing game became more of a factor. That continued at Indiana.
"You saw some guys be able to catch 3-, 4-, 5-yard passes and turn them into 20-yard gains,'' said Morgan, who spread the ball around to six different receivers. "It was huge for us last Saturday.''
When the Gophers last won the Axe, in 2018, Morgan was an efficient 9-for-16 for 124 yards with no interceptions, while his Badgers counterpart, Alex Hornibrook, threw three picks. The Gophers also got a punt return touchdown from Demetrius Douglas.
"We've got to find a way to not turn the ball over and get takeaways on defense,'' Fleck said.
All week, Fleck has focused on Wisconsin and the rivalry and instructed his team to ignore any "external noise'' concerning the Iowa-Nebraska game.
"The Axe is what matters,'' Fleck said. "The Axe is the Axe, and that's what this week is all about.''