The thing about Cinderella is that the clock always strikes midnight.
This season’s Cinderella in the Big Ten is Minnesota, and though it’s riding a four-game winning streak that’s vaulted it to an 8-2 record and the No. 25 spot in the BCS standings, two remaining games against No. 19 Wisconsin and No. 13 Michigan State would figure to turn the Gophers’ stagecoach back into a pumpkin.
But, of course, that’s why they play the games.
Saturday’s matchup with Wisconsin is the annual battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, a trophy so Midwestern it could only be swung by one of these two teams. Though they’ve been playing for it since 1890 (so long ago that Paul Bunyan was probably still alive), Wisconsin’s done the majority of the swinging in recent years, winning the last nine meetings and 16 of the last 18.
But this year might be different. The Gophers aren’t a Big Ten bottomfeeder this season. Saturday’s game, per Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill, marks the first time the two teams will meet with both six games over .500 since 1901.
"You've got to remember where we came from. Last year wasn't exactly how we wanted it to go. Right now we're 8-2, things are looking pretty good, but I think what has got us to this point is taking it one week at a time and focusing every single day on our preparation,” Minnesota sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson said Tuesday. “So that's what's got to stay the same. There's a lot of buzz around this game, but at the same time we can't treat it any differently than our last four games."
The last four games have been good ones for Minnesota, all wins since Kill took his indefinite leave of absence to better deal with his epilepsy. The Gophers have played inspired football ever since, with Kill keeping a watchful eye over his team all the while. Starting with an unannounced trip to Northwestern in the first game after taking leave, Kill has sat in the press box during every win. And to say Kill hasn’t been directly involved in this dream of a turnaround for Minnesota would be just plain wrong. Interim head coach Tracy Claeys has admitted Kill’s involvement, Kill has undoubtedly offered up coaching advice from his perch in the press box, and Kill even took on media duties this week.
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While Wisconsin is quite the favorite — Kill said Wisconsin “has no weakness” — it would really be something for Minnesota to recapture Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
"It would mean a great deal,” Kill said on Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference. “It would mean a great deal to our seniors, and they've been through a whole lot in the transition of the program. It would mean a lot to our state, and I don't think there's any question about that. I know it means a lot to Wisconsin. It's a great rivalry, and it's been played for a long time. So I think it means a lot to both teams. We're going to have to play at a high level to beat a team like Wisconsin because I think they're very, very good."
Though Wisconsin is very, very good, the Gophers have done their own amount of impressing in this dream season. They’re still one of the teams actually capable of reaching the Big Ten title game, though it’d take upsets of Wisconsin and Michigan State, plus a Spartan loss this weekend. Regardless, there’s no understating the turnaround in the Twin Cities.
"It's been a great ride,” Minnesota senior offensive lineman Ed Olson said. “The team's come together, coaches come together, we go out at practice and we're just having fun out there. We just treat each day like it's our last. For the seniors, we're just having a great ride, and it's been a blast."
Minnesota has two more shots to delay the stroke of midnight just a little bit longer.
The Badgers and Gophers battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN.
All Big Ten games on Saturday, Nov. 23.
Michigan at Iowa, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network. The Wolverines have weapons, there's no doubt about that. The only question is whether Devin Gardner can get them the ball. Yes, the Wolverines were able to snap their mini-slide with that triple-overtime win at Northwestern last week. But, that doesn't change the fact that another opposing defense played a great game, as for the third straight week Gardner was harassed in the backfield. Nineteen rushing yards for the mobile quarterback are certainly better than the back-to-back -30-yard days Gardner had in weeks prior, but it's still nowhere near where things should be. If Iowa can get pressure — and with the Hawkeyes' strong front, they most certainly can — it could be another long day for Gardner.
Illinois at Purdue, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network. Well, the good news is that someone will walk out of Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday with a win. The bad news is that the other team will have just one remaining opportunity to prevent a completely winless Big Ten campaign. The stakes are infinitely higher for the Illini, who are two losses away from staring down back-to-back oh-fers in conference play. Debate has sprung up in the media about whether Tim Beckman will be back for a third year in Champaign, and he can certainly help his case with two wins over fellow winless squads in the final two weeks (Illinois gets Northwestern to close out the season). Purdue hasn't been able to do much on offense this year, good news for Illinois' weak defense. Similarly, Nathan Scheelhaase and the at-times high-powered Illini offense could have another big day.
No. 13 Michigan State at Northwestern, 11 a.m., ESPN. This is it for Pat Fitzgerald's team: Win or go home. Of course, it's not the season finale just yet, but a loss means it might as well be. The Wildcats need two more wins to get to bowl eligibility, and there are only two games left. Beating Michigan State is a huge ask of a team finding new and more heartbreaking ways to lose football games each and every week. A Spartan win would have to come on some sort of interception tipped 25 times in order for things to get much worse in Evanston. For Michigan State, Mark Dantonio's team can't be sleeping on Northwestern, which played great on the defensive side of the ball last week. The big thing here, though, is that while the Wildcats seem to get a good performance from just one unit each week, the Spartans are morphing into a powerhouse on both sides of the ball.
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Nebraska at Penn State, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network. Commend the Huskers for putting up four touchdowns and nearly 400 yards of offense on the country's No. 1 defense last week, but the fact remains that Nebraska lost the game. Three-loss seasons aren't the expectation in Lincoln, even if Nebraska isn't the nationally elite program some still think it is. Regardless, it's made Bo Pelini's chair a little warm for much of the season. The Huskers figure to be favored in their final games at Penn State and home against Iowa, but wins are certainly not guaranteed, particularly when the Nebraska defense has played like it has this season. Nittany Lions running backs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have had huge games in recent weeks, and another could be on the horizon as the Huskers' rush defense ranks in the bottom half of the Big Ten.
Indiana at No. 3 Ohio State, 2:30 p.m., ESPN 2. We will definitely learn something about the Buckeyes this weekend. We know the Buckeyes can score with the best of them, and against an abysmal Indiana defense, that shouldn't be any kind of problem. But the Hoosiers, who have had one of the conference's most electrifying offenses all season long, are coming off a 51-3 trouncing at the hands of Wisconsin, the first time they'd been held under 28 points in a game this season. So, can the Buckeyes match the Badgers' work in the defensive department? Can they on offense? If not and Indiana gets back to its high-scoring ways, that tells us a lot about Ohio State — who beat the Badgers by just a touchdown in their meeting earlier this season — as well as Wisconsin, currently one of the most underrated teams in all of college football.