Gophers hope to add Axe to special season

Rhys Lloyd doesn't remember much about the 2003 Wisconsin-Minnesota game except the final seconds and his wild dash afterward.

Lloyd drilled a 35-yard field goal on the game's final play to give the Gophers a 37-34 win. As he recalls it now, Lloyd didn't even see the ball clear the uprights, because he was already sprinting toward the Wisconsin sideline to grab Paul Bunyan's Axe.

"I give my old teammates a lot of [grief] and tell them I was the superior athlete because I got to the axe first," Lloyd told ESPN.com this week. "There were a lot of benches on the Wisconsin sideline, and instead of running around them, I decided to hop over one. Luckily, I didn't trip or make a fool of myself."

There are few cooler scenes in college football than when the winner of the sport's most-played rivalry seizes that axe and celebrates with it, often by pretending to chop down one of the goal posts. But that's a sight Minnesota has watched from the losing end far too often of late. That 2003 win was the last in the series by the Gophers, and the Badgers' current nine-game winning streak matches the longest by either team in a series that spans 122 games.

"Someone told me the other day that my kick came in the last Minnesota win and asked how that made me feel," Lloyd said. "I said, 'I feel extremely old now.'"

Minnesota senior offensive lineman Ed Olson remembers that '03 game well. He sat in the stands and watched it along with his grandfather, father and brother. He was in the fourth grade at the time.

Olson -- a Minnesota native whose father, Ed Sr., also played for the Gophers -- grew up understanding the importance and significance of the rivalry. Olson would love nothing better than to plant the axe in the Twin Cities when Wisconsin visits TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday.

"It would mean the world," he said. "It's the biggest rivalry, and we always talk about it. A lot of alumni come back and tell us stories about the games. I've gotten a lot of texts from alumni saying how important this game is and how much they want the axe back."

Minnesota has had a special season already, overcoming the leave of absence coach Jerry Kill took earlier in the year to post an 8-2 start, its best record since -- you guessed it -- 2003. Among the Gophers' achievements this season are four straight Big Ten victories for the first time since 1973, beating Nebraska for the first time since 1950, taking the Governor's Victory Bell trophy from Penn State for the first time since 2004 and earning a national ranking for the first time since 2008.

But the Gophers will be the first to tell you that snapping the losing streak against their top rival would top all of those milestones.

"Even though we are happy with our season so far, when you go into rivalry games, whatever you've done means nothing," safety Brock Vereen told reporters on Tuesday.

Wisconsin has manhandled Minnesota the past decade, winning by an average of 17 points during its nine-game streak and outscoring the Gophers 121-49 the last three seasons. The Badgers have dominated the line of scrimmage, averaging 241.4 rushing yards to just 132.4 for Minnesota since 2003.

But the Gophers might finally match up better physically against their neighbors to the East, as this season's team has thrived on a powerful running game that chews up time of possession. Minnesota has averaged more than 222 rushing yards during its current four-game winning streak, and it ranks No. 20 nationally in rushing yards per game this season.

Expect a lot of grounding and pounding on Saturday, as the forecast calls for a high of about 20 degrees.

"It kind of adds to what it's all about," Kill said. "It's old-fashioned football."

Kill has talked about pulling off marquee wins and getting trophies back as part of his rebuilding job. But he said most of that discussion with his own team came in the summer. Not much motivation is needed this week.

"They already know," he said. "We don't have to say a whole lot about it. Our job is just to keep 'em grounded."

At least until the game is over. If the Gophers figure out a way to beat Wisconsin, they have a license to go a little crazy. Lloyd, who now lives in Florida and will attend his first game in TCF Bank Stadium this weekend, remembers "running around the middle of the field like an idiot" after the 2003 win.

"We're starting to build and I think we're getting stronger again," Lloyd said. "I think we'll actually give them a game this Saturday, and hopefully we'll pull it off and get the axe back again."