Gophers eager to prove oddsmakers wrong against rival Badgers

MINNEAPOLIS — Ten years later, Gophers football fans still vividly remember Rhys Lloyd sprinting across the Metrodome turf with one goal in mind: grab Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

It was Lloyd who drilled a 35-yard field goal as time expired to help Minnesota beat rival Wisconsin, 37-34, back in 2003. Before the football even crossed through the uprights, Lloyd was dashing up the field in celebration before he and a mob of his teammates turned their attention to one of the most coveted rivalry trophies in college football.

Lloyd was the first one to the Badgers sideline and quickly found the hiding place of the Axe. As he ripped it out of its case, Lloyd held the prized trophy high in the air as the rest of the Gophers joined in.

“I can say right now it certainly wasn’t planned, and I’ve never lived that celebration down, obviously,” Lloyd said this week, more than a decade after his kick helped Minnesota claim the Axe. “I just remember when they called a timeout against me, I just felt very at ease. … I went on the field and had a chat with coach (Glen) Mason. We just talked, and he just said, ‘Don’t forget the Axe after you hit the field goal.’

“I just kind of took off. I guess the rest is history, as you say.”

History in that Lloyd and his teammates on that 2003 team were the last Gophers squad to win this rivalry. For the last decade, Wisconsin has dominated, winning nine straight contests against Minnesota. None of the last three games have been close.

While the Gophers players may try to downplay this Saturday’s rivalry as just another game on the schedule, there’s certainly a lot more buzz for this year’s matchup, not only on campus but in the Twin Cities, as well.

The biggest reason? Minnesota believes this could finally be the year that Paul Bunyan’s Axe comes back to Dinkytown.

Both the Gophers and Badgers enter Saturday’s contest with identical 8-2 records. Minnesota, which has won four straight games, hasn’t had an eight-win team face Wisconsin since 2003 — the same year of Lloyd’s late-game heroics.

“Right now we’re 8-2. Things are looking pretty good, but I think what’s gotten us to this point is taking it one week at a time and focusing every single day on our preparation,” said quarterback Philip Nelson, who grew up near Madison before moving to Mankato, Minn. “That’s what’s got to stay the same. There’s a lot of buzz around this game, but at the same time we can’t treat it any differently than our last four games.”

When the year began, few people expected Minnesota to have eight wins at this point in the season. During the third year of head coach Jerry Kill’s rebuilding process, it seemed as if six or maybe seven wins would be the Gophers’ ceiling. But they’ve surprised many people along the way and have become one of the better stories in college football, especially after rallying around Kill as he has taken time away from the team to focus on treating his epilepsy.

In Kill’s first two years at Minnesota, these games against Wisconsin have been blowouts. The Gophers were picked apart by quarterback Russell Wilson and the Badgers at TCF Bank Stadium by a 42-13 final in 2011. Last year, Nelson made his first career start at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison but came out on the losing end as Minnesota fell, 38-13.

These rivalry games haven’t always been this one-sided during Wisconsin’s nine-game winning streak. Minnesota lost by a field goal in both 2008 and 2009 and kept it to a one-touchdown game in 2007. Back in 2005, the Badgers narrowly edged the Gophers thanks to a late blocked punt at the Metrodome for a 38-34 win.

The early point spread on Saturday’s game has Wisconsin favored by 16.5, a seemingly large number given Minnesota’s successful season and the fact that the Gophers are playing at home. But Minnesota’s players aren’t putting much stock into what the Las Vegas oddsmakers think.

“It puts a smile to all of our faces because that’s exactly where we want to be,” Nelson said of the point spread. “We don’t need to be favored by anybody. I think our whole outlook this season has been constantly being an underdog. Why should it change now?”

The Gophers’ season can already be considered a success, but a win against their biggest rival would be the cherry on top. Just how big is this year’s Battle for the Axe? Likely the biggest game in Kill’s three years at Minnesota, and arguably the biggest game any of the current Gophers have played in.

It’s big enough for Lloyd to fly up from Florida to watch the Gophers in person for the first time since his playing days. The magnitude of Saturday’s game hasn’t been lost on other Gophers alums, either. They’ve talked about the rivalry with current players, including senior offensive lineman Ed Olson, who was at the Metrodome when Lloyd lifted Minnesota to victory in 2003.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Olson recalls. “It would be a great experience. … I’ve gotten some texts from some guys telling us how important this game is. We’d love to win it for the alumni and the state of Minnesota.”

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