Big Ten football is primarily known for two things: cold November Saturdays and rivalry games with obscure trophies on the line.
Indiana and Michigan State play for a brass spittoon every year. Iowa and Minnesota play for a bronze pig. Most notably, Wisconsin and Minnesota battle every year for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, one of the oldest rivalry trophies in college football history.
In the Big Ten, the trophies add extra importance to rivalry games. Minnesota snapped a 13-year losing streak against Wisconsin last season and made a state-wide tour with the axe to celebrate it. The Gophers haven’t lost a game since then, and Wisconsin has a picture of them celebrating in the trophy case for extra motivation.
When Nebraska joined the conference in 2011, Nebraska and Iowa created the Heroes Trophy to award to the winner and honor local heroes in both communities.
Several years later in 2014, when divisional realignment placed Nebraska and Wisconsin in the same division, former Nebraska Athletics Director Shawn Eichorst and Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez announced a new trophy that the two schools would play for.
The athletics departments of both schools agreed to tap into their patriotic roots and create the Freedom Trophy. The bronze trophy is molded with one half in the shape of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, and the other half in the shape of Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium. A bronze American flag is in the middle of the two halves.
There was palpable excitement about the new trophy leading in to a huge showdown between the two schools in 2014. Both teams still had playoff aspirations and the winner had the inside path to winning the division.
However, 60 minutes, 59 Wisconsin points and a then-record 408 rushing yards by Melvin Gordon later, the trophy was an afterthought. In Wisconsin, the attention rightfully shined on Gordon, who achieved the feat in just three quarters of action. In Nebraska, the trophy was forgotten about as the conversation shifted to whether Bo Pelini was still fit to lead the program after the 59-24 loss.
Since that game, Wisconsin has never relinquished the trophy. The Badgers have won all five games played with it on the line, and the lack of turnover with it has made it mostly forgotten. After Wisconsin’s 41-24 win over Nebraska last season, senior kicker Rafael Gaglianone was the one casually carrying the large trophy off the field to little added fanfare.
This year, the attention is focused on the bigger picture once again. Wisconsin currently trails Minnesota in the Big Ten West by two games, and needs to win out and get some help in order to win the division. Meanwhile, Nebraska is simply trying to salvage a lost season with two wins in the final three games to become bowl eligible.
“We don’t mention it,” running backs coach Ryan Held said about the trophy. “It’s the next game. We haven’t had the trophy in a while so we’ve got to find a way to get the trophy, and in order to do that you’ve got to play four quarters and you’ve gotta play physical, tough football against a really good football team.”
Senior cornerback Lamar Jackson echoed Held’s sentiment, but added that a win could change that.
“We don’t put an emphasis on it,” he said. “Of course if you’re here you kind of know what’s up with the whole rivalry thing. We know that the trophy is over there and I think that once we get the job done we’re gonna put a lot more emphasis on keeping that trophy.”
In Madison, there is a different mindset about the matter. The Badgers play three games every year with a trophy on the line and head coach Paul Chryst makes sure that his players know that.
“We always know when it’s a trophy game,” Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Orr said. “Fortunately, if we have the trophy, it’s out during practice and team meetings.”
While Wisconsin puts added attention on its trophy games, some players still view the Freedom Trophy differently. The Badgers have battled for Paul Bunyan’s Axe since 1948, and have played Iowa for the Heartland Trophy, a brass bull, since 2004.
Senior linebacker Zack Baun takes a different approach to the game, believing that Nebraska needs to win a game in the series for it to become a rivalry.
"I think it was a big rivalry back before they had the trophy, so they created the trophy, and now it hasn't left here,” he said. “I don't know if it's much of a rivalry anymore.”
As for players like Orr, one of Wisconsin’s captains, playing for any trophy creates extra motivation.
“It gets you jacked up either way,” Orr said. “No matter what the trophy is, you don’t want to be in a position where they’re running across the field to your sideline and grabbing that trophy and then celebrating with it. Our mindset is that it could be a tree branch or something, and if we have it, you’re not gonna get it.”
Nebraska’s north stadium trophy case is already crowded as it currently stands. It spans the length of two walls. If the Huskers want to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2016, they will need to make room for one or two more.