Seeing red: Fleck wants Gophers focused on Wisconsin, not Nebraska

·4 min read

For $65 at the Eden Prairie Scheels, P.J. Fleck could outfit himself with a bright red Nebraska Cornhuskers hoodie. Throw in an additional $120, and he could complete the ensemble with a pair of high-end red sneakers.

After all, Fleck needs Nebraska to beat Iowa on Friday in order for his Gophers football team to stay alive in the race for the Big Ten West Division championship. Wearing a little "Go Big Red" swag couldn't hurt for a day, could it?

"No, no way,'' Fleck said, laughing, during his weekly news conference Monday. "We don't wear any red anyway.''

Fleck's message to his players was straightforward: Worry about the red team they're playing Saturday (Wisconsin), not the red team that's playing the Hawkeyes on Friday (12:30 p.m., BTN).

"We've talked to our players because there's a game playing Friday. We have no control over that,'' Fleck said. "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.''

That would be Paul Bunyan's Axe, which will go to the winner of the Gophers-Wisconsin matchup Saturday afternoon at Huntington Bank Stadium. The Gophers (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten) will try to wrest that prize away from the No. 15 Badgers (8-3, 6-2), who have won it the past two years and 16 out of the past 17.

A victory over Wisconsin at the very least would give the Gophers their first Axe win in Minneapolis since Rhys Lloyd's last-play field goal secured a 37-34 triumph in the Metrodome in 2003. At the venue first known as TCF Bank Stadium, the Axe has left with the Badgers in all six visits.

The matchup will carry the additional weight of West title bout if Nebraska beats Iowa on Friday and Purdue tops Indiana on Saturday — outcomes that are out of the Gophers' control.

"What we do have control of is how we play against Wisconsin, and that's the only thing we're going to talk about,'' Fleck said. "Everybody else is going to talk about what's at stake, what are the matchups, because it gives everybody something to talk about for the whole week.''

Wisconsin's route to the West title and berth in the Big Ten Championship game Dec. 4 in Indianapolis is the most direct: Beat the Gophers, and the Badgers are in, no matter what Iowa does on Friday. The Badgers even would win the West if they lost Saturday and ended up in a three-way tie with Iowa and the Gophers. A four-way tie would doom Wisconsin, as would a loss plus an Iowa win.

The Badgers are riding a seven-game winning streak and rely on their usually-stout running game and defense. Running back Braelon Allen, a 238-pound, 17-year-old true freshman, rushed 22 times for 228 yards and three touchdowns in the Badgers' 35-28 win over Nebraska on Saturday. Their defense gave up 452 yards to the Huskers yet still leads the Big Ten in total defense (233.3 yards allowed per game) and ranks second in scoring defense (15.8 points allowed per game).

What jumps out about the Wisconsin defense? "Everything. All of it,'' Fleck said. "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. Their linebackers are better than they've ever been. That [Jack] Sanborn kid is really good. The [Leo] Chenal kid is very good. He's 260 pounds, but he moves like he's 220.''

It's no wonder Fleck doesn't want his players fixated on what happens Friday afternoon in Lincoln. They'll have enough with which to deal from a surging Wisconsin team.

"The Axe is the Axe, and that's what this week is all about,'' Fleck said. "Doing everything we can to drown out the external noise because we can't control that. 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.''

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