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P.J. Fleck’s message to Gophers: The Axe is what matters

Other factors involved in Big Ten West race just a distraction, coach says.

University of Wisconsin defensive end David Pfaff (52) holds up the Paul Bunyan Axe Trophy after the Badgers defeated the Minnesota Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 30, 2019. USA Today Sports file photo
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MINNEAPOLIS -- University of Minnesota football head coach P.J. Fleck has his work cut out for himself this week.

Like all coaches, he wants to keep his players focused on the upcoming game — and that’s, of course, the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe against No. 15 Wisconsin on Saturday. But there will be a big reason for his players to be drawn to the No. 17 Iowa-Nebraska game on Friday.

If the Cornhuskers beat the Hawkeyes and Purdue tops Indiana on Saturday, Minnesota can win the Big Ten West division with a win over the Badgers. The ensuing four-way tiebreaker would go the Gophers’ way.

“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,” Fleck said Monday. “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.”

The Gophers have enough to deal with as a 6.5-point underdog to the Badgers at 3 p.m. at Huntington Bank Stadium. Minnesota, which won the Axe in Madison, Wis., in 2018, has lost eight straight at home to Wisconsin since 2003.


“What we have to be able to do is take care of our job,” Fleck said. “At the end of the day if you win, you get the Axe — no matter what. The Axe is what matters. … (We’re) doing everything we can to drown out the external noise.”

That outside din continued to come out of Lincoln, Neb., on Monday when Nebraska coach Scott Frost announced quarterback Adrian Martinez would miss the game with a shoulder injury.

The Cornhuskers had opened as a 3.5-point favorite, but with the Martinez news, they became a 1-point underdog.

Why four?

The Gophers need Purdue to win on Saturday because Minnesota would be eliminated in a three-team tiebreaker with only the Badgers and Hawkeyes.

If Minnesota beats Wisconsin and Iowa loses, each team would be 6-3 in conference play. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head matchups and the three teams would be 1-1 against each other. The second tiebreaker is intra-division record, and Wisconsin would advance at 5-1. Minnesota would be 4-2 and Iowa 3-3.

So in that three-team scenario, even if Minnesota beats Wisconsin, the Badgers would still go to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. If Iowa and Wisconsin both win, the Badgers go to Indy because they beat Iowa in late October.

2 transfers

Gophers defensive tackle Rashad Cheney has entered the NCAA transfer portal, a source confirmed to the Pioneer Press on Monday. Cheney follows defensive end M.J. Anderson, who went into the portal on Sunday. Minnesota has had four total players exit the program during the 2021 season.


Cheney appeared in six games this season and made three total tackles, including one in the 35-14 win over Indiana on Saturday. He missed a few games for personal reasons, according to head coach P.J. Fleck.

In 2020, Cheney played in four games and had six tackles with a pass breakup. He was a four-star recruit in the 2019 class from Cedar Grove High School in Ellenwood, Ga.

Stingy Badger

Wisconsin’s defense leads the nation in yards allowed with a 233-yard average this season and ranks fifth in points allowed, 15.8 per game.

“They’re probably better up front with the eight guys they rotate, with all due respect, than anybody except maybe one other year I can compare it to up front,” Fleck said. “Their linebackers are better than they’ve ever been. … That (Jack) Sanborn kid is really good. The (Leo) Chenal kid is very good.”

Fleck added the only similar competition the U has faced was Auburn in the 2020 Outback Bowl and the Hawkeyes in 2018.

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P. J. Fleck yells at a referee during the first quarter Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, as Minnesota took on Indiana at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Indiana. The Gophers won 35-14. Marc Lebryk / USA Today Sports

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