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Plenty on the line as Gophers, Badgers meet in regular season finale

No. 9 Minnesota hosts No. 13 Wisconsin Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at TCF Bank Stadium.
Credit: AP
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, center, jumps in celebration with defensive back Chris Williamson after the defense stopped the ball against Penn State during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 31-26. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

MINNEAPOLIS — While Camp Randall Stadium was undergoing a renovation in 1994 on campus at the University of Wisconsin, a piece of history resurfaced.

After missing for more than 50 years, stowed away in a storage room at the University of Wisconsin Athletics Department, was the "Slab of Bacon" — the rivalry's initial trophy given to the winner of the annual Minnesota-Wisconsin football game.

While it was the Badgers uncovering history back in '94, this year it's the Gophers that seem to be turning back the clock.

"We respect the rivalry so much," said Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck. "I feel like it's back, where it's not just one-sided all the time."

From 2004 to 2017, the rivalry was as one-sided as it's ever been. Wisconsin won 14 straight games, including a 31-0 rout in 2017 in Minneapolis.

"It's something you learn about when you come to Minnesota almost right away," said Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan of the Gophers-Badgers rivalry. "You learn about the tradition of the University of Minnesota — the guys who have played in this game ... I'm not from here, but I know what it means and how it important it is to the state and this program."

If he didn't quite understand the rivalry entering last season, he became fully aware after the Gophers knocked off the Badgers 37-15 in the regular-season finale last year at Camp Randall.

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"It was a huge win for us," Fleck said, reflecting on last year's triumph. "That's a huge compliment to the University of Wisconsin, for what they've been able to accomplish and sustain over a long period of time. (Wisconsin head coach) Paul Chryst has continued to do that. His teams are very tough, very talented."

The Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry is the longest uninterrupted rivalry in FBS Division I, and the series is deadlocked at 60-60-8. Both teams are ranked — Minnesota is No. 9 and Wisconsin No. 13 — and ESPN College GameDay will be front-and-center when the game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. at TCF Bank Stadium.

Oh yeah, the winner also wins the Big Ten West and will face No. 2 Ohio State in next week's Big Ten championship.

"Both programs, both states, they know what's at stake," said Gophers senior linebacker Thomas Barber, who grew up in Plymouth, Minn. "Obviously there's a lot at stake this year, but we still have got to keep it as a one-game championship and keep our mind focused on that. The other stuff will just come after that."

Barber has some family lineage in the Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry. His father, Marion Barber, played for the Gophers from 1977-80 and is the sixth all-time leading rusher in program history; and his brother, Marion Barber III, was a running back for Minnesota from 2001-04. Marion Barber III is fourth all-time in rushing in program history.

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"It's something special," said Thomas Barber, who will be playing in his final home game as a Gopher. "Most of my family is going to be out there supporting me. ... I won't be surprised if I see my father cry."

Thomas Barber and the Gophers' defense will have their hands full on Saturday as they take on the nation's No. 2 rusher in Jonathan Taylor, who has amassed 1,685 yards on the ground and 1,847 all-purpose yards. He also leads the country with 22 touchdowns and is second in Big Ten history for career rushing yards.

"They're very difficult up front," said Thomas Barber of Wisconsin's offense. "They have a lot of different formations, different personnel. Different schemes for each personnel is going to have to be what we do to manage (and) outnumber them. But at the same time, the run game opens up for play-action passes. Their offense is perfect for what they do. They balance each other very well."

The Gophers have a few offensive weapons as well. Minnesota is one of two schools to have two 1,000-yard receivers (Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman) and one 1,000-yard rusher (Rodney Smith), so any play could be a game-changer.

"Obviously Wisconsin is a very elite program, a lot of history in their program," said Morgan. "A lot of respect for them, the things that they've been able to do and continue to do each and every week, and each and every year. I'm extremely proud to be able to play in this game and for this University."