In local folklore, Paul Bunyan is depicted as a larger than life lumberjack with a knack for chopping down the biggest trees in the woods. Bunyan has believed to have been born in either Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, or Maine. As a result of the lingering debate as to where the folk character was born, it’s only fitting that three of the states have college football rivalry games involving Paul Bunyan as a trophy. Michigan State and Michigan battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy and then Wisconsin and Minnesota play for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Those four teams are the definition of blue collar and hard-nosed. All four teams pride themselves on running the football and they want to chop down the opposition with some serious ground and pound plays. The two trophy games have extremely rich histories dating back to the 1890’s and the teams in each respected game have a hatred that runs deep. Let’s dive into these rivalries and take a look at what each trophy game has to offer.
Michigan State & Michigan: Paul Bunyan Trophy
Michigan leads the series 69-36-5, Michigan leads the trophy series 36-30-2
This is easily one of my favorite games to watch every single year. If you want to see two in-state rivals rag on each other constantly, then this game is for you. Spartans and Wolverines. No further explanation is needed. This rivalry is one that has been around since 1898, but the trophy came into play in 1953 when Michigan State joined the Big Ten Conference. The players on both sides know each other very well due to the schools recruiting the state of Michigan extensively. Players have played against each other for years and coaches have coached against each other for years as well. There is no mistaking that this game is extremely personal for each side.
After a 28-24 win against State in 2007, Michigan running back Mike Hart was asked: “Do you think of Michigan State as your little brother?” Hart simply replied: “Yup!” and giggled like a five-year-old. On that same day, Michigan State Head Coach Mark Dantonio was conducting postgame interviews and was visibly disgusted by the outcome of the game and the University of Michigan as a whole. It was fairly obvious that the man hated losing, especially to that school from Ann Arbor. Dantonio stated: “I find a lot of things that they do amusing… Pride comes before the fall… It’s not over and it’ll never be over here.”
Well, Michigan, Dantonio came for your head and you had your tail in between your legs for years. The Spartans took the rivalry by storm from 2008-2011 with exciting and convincing wins. Michigan claimed a 12-10 win in 2012 on a last-second field goal by Brendan Gibbons. The Wolverines talked the talk once again. The winning feeling didn’t last for long. State then took three games from 2013-2015 with a can’t lose attitude. In 2015, Michigan punter Blake O’Neill began his rugby style punt without securing the ball and got absolutely walloped by four Spartan defenders. Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped up the loose ball and bolted to the end zone to secure a dramatic 27-23 win.
Okay seriously though, this will always be funny.
Michigan then took the 2016 meeting 32-23 and it was looking like maybe the momentum would swing over to the Wolverines. Michigan was No. 2 at the time and Michigan State was having an abysmal season. Would 2017 be the year Michigan wins again? NOPE! Unranked and 11.5 point underdog Michigan State upset No. 7 Michigan 14-10 in the 2017 meeting in front of over 112,000 people in a driving rainstorm. Michigan turned the rock over FIVE times. I may be Captain Obvious here, but I think it’s pretty hard to win a game when you turn the ball over five times. Great job John O’Korn! Michigan State has won eight out the last ten games since the little brother comments and these two lovebirds will meet again on Saturday, October 20th at Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium.
Minnesota & Wisconsin: Paul Bunyan’s Axe
Wisconsin leads the series 60-59-8
Whenever these two teams meet, there’s a different sort of energy flying around. However, the trophy wasn’t always Paul Bunyan’s Axe. It was a slab of bacon. Yes, the beautiful creation that you can put on anything and it will taste amazing. The bacon existed from 1930 to 1943 with either an “M” or “W” in the center based on who won. The trophy was lost after the 1943 meeting and the axe came into play after World War II. In the early stages of this rivalry, Minnesota simply dominated it. However, the tide started to turn in the mid-1980’s. Since 1984, Minnesota has only defeated Wisconsin 10 times. That’s not exactly aesthetically pleasing if you’re a Golden Gopher fan.
In the past 14 meetings, only four games have been tightly contested. None bigger or crazier than the 2005 meeting at the Minneapolis Metrodome. Up 34-31 with 38 seconds left, all Minnesota punter Justin Kucek had to do was get the punt away and stop a few Wisconsin prayer attempts in order to either tie or win the game. However, Kucek fumbled the snap and the punt attempt was blocked. The ball went towards the back of the end zone and it was close to touching the end-line. Ben Strickland fell on the loose ball for the touchdown giving Wisconsin an improbable 37-34 lead with 30 seconds left. It was safe to say that the Metrodome was silent after that play other than the small amount of Badger fans in attendance screaming like lunatics. Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney carried the ball 43 times for 258 yards in the game but it wasn’t enough.
Minnesota is currently on a 14-year losing streak against the Badgers and Wisconsin is a legitimate College Football Playoff contender. How much longer will it take until Minnesota finally gets the axe back to Minneapolis?
The past few meetings have been as going as expected due to the large talent gap between the two teams. Wisconsin has remained a powerful team and Minnesota is still trying to find their identity and search for new talent after a number of coaching changes. It will definitely take time for Minnesota to have a chance in this game but do not be surprised if the Gophers pull an upset soon. PJ Fleck has been an underdog his entire life and he embraces that role. He’s the same guy that led Western Michigan to the Cotton Bowl during the 2016-2017 season and almost upset Wisconsin at Jerry World.