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LINCOLN, Neb. – Before the season, only the most optimistic Minnesota fans would have thought their Gophers would have something more tangible than Paul Bunyan's Axe at stake when it was time to play Wisconsin.
How about a trip to the Big Ten championship game?
A Gophers team picked fifth in the seven-team Big Ten West in the preseason will play at Wisconsin on Saturday for the division title and a matchup with East champ Ohio State on Dec. 6.
"This is what we have been working for all year," offensive lineman Zac Epping said after Saturday's 28-24 win at Nebraska. "Whoever wins gets to go to the Big Ten championship game, and everyone is excited for it. We get to battle for the Axe. It's going to be a hell of a game."
Minnesota (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten) has lost 10 straight and 15 of the last 17 to Wisconsin (9-2, 6-1). The Gophers haven't won in Madison since 1994 in the series that dates to 1890, the longest in football's top tier.
They'll have plenty of confidence this week after what they accomplished as 10-point underdogs against Nebraska. They trailed by two touchdowns at halftime and, with star running back David Cobb out with a left hamstring injury, were down 10 in the middle of the third quarter.
Quarterback Mitch Leidner led a pair of 10-play touchdown drives for the lead and finished with 111 yards rushing and two TDs. Briean Boddy-Calhoun saved the victory when he stripped the ball from De'Mornay Pierson-El at the Minnesota 2-yard line with just over a minute to play.
No doubt, it was a milestone win for a Minnesota program that had lost seven straight in Lincoln since its previous win here in 1960. During the Gophers' visit in 2012, they generated only 102 total yards through three quarters and fell behind 38-0 before they scored two touchdowns in the last eight minutes.
"I came here two years ago and we got smashed," Boddy-Calhoun said, "and right now two years later it's a completely different team with a completely different feeling."
The Gophers have posted consecutive seasons with eight or more wins for the first time since 2002-03, and they're assured of finishing with their best Big Ten record since going 5-2 in 2003. They're also bowl-eligible for a third straight year.
The upward trend is consistent with the pattern established by Jerry Kill at his previous coaching stops. He was 3-9, 6-7 and 8-5 in his first three years at Minnesota and could lead the Gophers to their first season with nine or more wins since Glen Mason's squad won 10 games in 2003.
Kill said when he took the job, he told the Minnesota administration it could take seven or eight years to put the program in position to win titles. The Gophers haven't won the Big Ten since 1967.
"We still have a lot of work to do," he said. "We really do in a lot of areas to get where we want to be. I think it has happened a lot faster than I would certainly think. We came a long way, but that is because of the players and their effort in what they have done all offseason."
Now it's on to Wisconsin. The Gophers lost 20-7 to the Badgers last year.
Donnell Kirkwood, who along with Rodrick Williams filled in for the injured Cobb against Nebraska, said the Gophers will be prepared for the fan and media attention that is sure to come this week.
"This is a mature team," he said, "and I don't think it will bother us at all."