MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football team will take the field Saturday afternoon at Huntington Bank Stadium against rival Wisconsin already knowing if it still has a chance to win the Big Ten West title.
The Gophers enter Saturday’s game tied for second in the division with Purdue at 5-3. The Badgers and Iowa are each tied for the West lead at 6-2, but Wisconsin has that head-to-head tiebreaker after beating Iowa earlier this season. The Hawkeyes will be in Nebraska Friday afternoon.
If the Cornhuskers beat Iowa, the Gophers beat Wisconsin and Purdue beats Indiana, Minnesota will be the West champions and heading to Indianapolis to face the Ohio State/Michigan winner for the Big Ten title. So will PJ Fleck be sporting some Nebraska apparel on Friday?
"No, no way. We don’t wear any red anyway. We’ve talked to our players because there’s a game playing Friday night. We have no control over that. Whatever the outcome of that game is, we have no control over that so we’re kind of ignoring it, we really are. The only focus is the Axe," Fleck said Monday. "What we do have control of is how we play against Wisconsin, and that’s the only thing we’re going to talk about. What we have to be able to do is take care of our job, and at the end of the day if you win, you get the Axe no matter what. The Axe is what matters."
Fleck and the Gophers ended a two-game skid with Saturday’s 35-14 win at Indiana to improve to 7-4 on the season. The Badgers’ path to the Big Ten West is far simpler: Beat the Gophers, and they’re the champions.
For the second time in three years, the Gophers and Badgers will battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe with the division title potentially on the line. It would be quite the feather in Fleck’s cap to finish the regular season with a win over Minnesota’s biggest rival. After losing to Iowa 27-22 two weeks ago, Fleck is now 1-8 in his time at Minnesota against Iowa and Wisconsin.
The lone victory was at Madison in 2018. There’s no doubt the Gophers will be scoreboard watching on Friday to see if they can still win the division. But Fleck also doesn’t want it to be a distraction, or impact how his players might play against the Badgers.
"I don’t want a bunch of sad people on Friday night if it doesn’t work out, or anxious people on Friday night if it does work out. That’s not what we want, we want to eliminate that distraction. So our constant focus is going to be on Wisconsin, where it should be," Fleck said. "We need to play our best football, period, no matter what’s at stake."