Badgers aim to fill empty trophy case with win over Iowa

MADISON — For 14 years Paul Bunyan’s Axe sat in a trophy case in the Wisconsin football facility. It became a mainstay as the Badgers continuously beat Minnesota each season. The Axe would come out for game week and then go back in its home for another year. In the middle of the streak a Gophers player was asked at Big Ten Media Days whether he knew where the trophy would go if they ever beat Wisconsin again and he did not.

But then 2018 happened — Minnesota blew out Wisconsin and partied with the Axe at Camp Randall Stadium, at a Minnesota Vikings game the next day and then around the state for a year. While they were doing that, the Badgers were forced to walk past that empty trophy case each day, letting that rage build within them in the offseason. At one point the coaching staff put a picture of Minnesota celebrating in the case to provide even more motivation. When the two teams met on the final weekend of the regular season, the Badgers reclaimed “their” Axe in a 38-17 win and the trophy case was no longer empty.

The Heartland Trophy does not have the same history as the Axe and Wisconsin did not have it for as many years in a row, but players were giving off a similar vibe Monday when talking about the loss to Iowa last year that snapped a four-game winning streak in the series and led to another empty case.

“Absolutely,” defensive end Matt Henningsen said when asked if it was hard to see Iowa players take the trophy from them. “I mean, it’s tough walking past an empty trophy case. Especially since every year I’ve been here we had it until this past year. (It’s) really difficult seeing that empty.”

Henningsen is from Wisconsin. He grew up in Menomonee Falls dreaming of playing for the Badgers. He has skin in the game, if you will. But the rivalry is not lost on out of state guys like linebacker Jack Sanborn.

“I think it means a lot to everyone here,” the Illinois native said. “Our programs kind of embody the same things, embody the same qualities. I have a lot of respect for Iowa because of that. There’s a lot of pride that goes into it, because each team prides ourselves on similar things and you want to be the best at that. This rivalry means a lot to me, especially after last year. They have something that we want.”

The rivalry and trophy mean a lot, but the game has added importance in the race for the Big Ten West. The Hawkeyes were the heavy favorites to win the division after a 6-0 start that saw them rise to No. 2 in the country. Then Purdue came to town and earned a 24-7 victory. That opened things up for every other school in the division, including a Wisconsin team that started 1-2 in conference play. But following a win over the Boilermakers Saturday, the Badgers are just a game back of Iowa and Minnesota in the division.

Still, even without the division stakes the game would mean something, especially for the team that must walk past an empty trophy case.

“You get more of a glance at it, it kind of brings more attention, especially when the week is actually here,” Sanborn said. “You always notice it, but now it’s like, in a week we want the Heartland Trophy back in that case.”

Injury report

Wisconsin was down to two tight ends against Purdue last week and it is possible they could be at that number against the Hawkeyes. On the initial status report handed out Monday, sophomore Hayden Rucci (leg) and redshirt freshman Cam Large (leg) have already been ruled out, while sophomore Clay Cundiff and junior Jack Eschenbach are listed as questionable.

Without those four, the only true tight ends still healthy were senior Jake Ferguson and junior Jaylin Franklin. The latter was forced into the most action of his career and held up well, including coming up with the key block on Wisconsin’s first touchdown. The team also used junior offensive lineman Cormac Sampson as an extra blocker.

Other players listed as questionable for the game include outside linebacker Spencer Lytle, inside linebacker Mike Maskalunas, cornerback Alexander Smith and inside linebacker Jordan Turner.

Lyles announces intention to transfer

One of the more experienced linemen on Wisconsin’s roster announced he was headed to the transfer portal.

Center Kayden Lyles, who has started at center, guard, and defensive end in his career, posted his decision on social media Monday.

Lyles played in 34 games and started 16 for Wisconsin. He dealt with a number of injuries during his time with the Badgers, including a knee injury that knocked him out of the second half of last season.

The senior from Middleton was expected to be the starter at center this year but was beaten out for the job by sophomore Joe Tippmann in fall camp. Lyles played in five games, including a start against Michigan when Tippmann got scratched in the eye during warmups. However, Lyles did not play in either of the last two contests.

Award winners

Leo Chenal put on a show in Saturday’s win over Purdue and was honored for it Monday.

The junior linebacker was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week by the conference. It came after he had nine tackles, 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss against the Boilermakers.

He wasn’t the only Wisconsin player to win an award. So, too, did kicker Collin Larsh. He was named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week after going 3-for-3 on field goals. Larsh is now 10-for-12 on the season.