Minnesota placekicker Rhys Lloyd said he did not need to watch the ball drive through the yellow uprights and into the net beyond the end zone.
He just kicked the ball, turned and ran to midfield – faster than some of his teammates thought he could – curving toward the Wisconsin sideline and hopping over the silver benches so he could be the first to grab Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
“I don’t know if that was an instinct or not,” Lloyd said. “As soon as I kicked it, I just started running. I felt really athletic after I kicked it. I knew it was good, so I just started running.”
As time ran out, Lloyd’s 35-yard line-drive field goal wasn’t pretty, but it did the job for the 19th-ranked Gophers (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) in a dramatic 37-34 victory over the Badgers (6-4, 3-3) on Saturday in front of 59,543 at the Metrodome.
Part of the reason for Lloyd’s premature reaction might have been some advice he received on the sideline before the kick.
Minnesota called a timeout with one second left in regulation, and Wisconsin tried to ice Lloyd by calling another timeout when the field goal was set up.
Gophers coach Glen Mason, who affectionately calls the England native “Winston” (as in Churchill), shared a little foresight with him.
“I said, ‘Winston, ‘the snap’s going to be good, the hold’s going to be good, the protection’s going to be good and the kick’s going to be good. Now don’t forget to go get the ax,’ ” Mason said. “And he started laughing. I’m just glad he didn’t go for the ax before he kicked the ball.”
The win for Minnesota gave the program its first nine-win season since 1905 and proved something to the Gophers players.
After beginning the season with four wins over small-conference schools, the Gophers beat four Big Ten teams with a combined conference record of 2-19 before Saturday’s games. When Minnesota matched up with two top-tier teams in then-No. 20 Michigan and then-No. 15 Michigan State in mid-October, the team came up just short both times.
“We know we’re a good team,” linebacker Ben West said. “Coach Mason always talks about being good and being great. We hung in there with two of the better teams and just kind of folded.”
But Saturday’s win against the Badgers – who upset defending national champion Ohio State less than a month ago – instills confidence in a team that has been criticized for not being able to turn the corner in big games.
“It proves a lot,” cornerback Ukee Dozier said. “It proves that programs can turn around. In the past, our program hasn’t really been up to what it was supposed to be. But you’ve got to work hard to become successful, and we’re just trying to prove that we’re a good team.”
The Gophers led 24-6 just before halftime when Badgers quarterback Jim Sorgi led his team to a quick touchdown with less than two minutes remaining in the half.
The Gophers ran the clock out after running one play in which quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq went down hard on his left shoulder. He did not return, and Benji Kamrath filled in for the remainder of the game.
Coming out of halftime trailing 24-13, Wisconsin pieced its way to a 27-27 tie.
Minnesota’s defense looked futile to stop the Wisconsin passing game until a pass got away from Sorgi. A second-and-9 offering floated right into the hands of Gophers safety Justin Isom.
“At times it didn’t seem like either defense could make a stop,” Mason said. “We had our troubles in the passing game. But I thought Isom’s interception loomed big, because it gave us a chance to get momentum back.”
Minnesota did get that momentum back with an 11-yard touchdown run by Marion Barber III, who finished with 139 yards on 27 carries.
But the Badgers responded, tying the game at 34 with a 26-yard Sorgi pass to Owen Daniels for a touchdown.
After Minnesota’s offense sputtered, Sorgi and the Wisconsin offense got back on the field with 4:22 remaining.
This time, however, the Gophers defense came up with a vital three-and-out sequence, forcing a Badgers punt with just less than three minutes remaining.
“That was a huge stop for us going into the last drive,” Kamrath said. “Then it was up to (the offense) at the end to get the win.
“Basically, we said, ‘It’s our game here to win or to lose. We’ve got to drive down and run the clock. If we can get a field goal, it’s for the win.’ The guys all believed that we could do it and we did.”
Aaron Hosack’s big reception on third-and-nine kept the drive alive and brought the Gophers into Badgers territory.
The 6-foot-5-inch Hosack went up over Wisconsin’s Brandon Williams for a jump ball from Kamrath. Hosack came down with the ball and barely kept his feet in-bounds for a 22-yard gain to the Badgers 45-yard line.
Minnesota had run the exact same play on third-and-long a few drives before, and Hosack said he had to redeem himself for dropping the ball the first time.
Four rushing plays later, the Gophers lined up the field goal for Lloyd on the left hash mark. And the excitable kicker put through the Gophers’ first game-winning field goal since Nov. 6, 1999, when Dan Nystrom’s last-second field goal beat then-No. 2 Penn State.
Mason, who said he puts a lot of pressure on kickers in practice, was thrilled by the game.
“I enjoyed every second of it,” Mason said, “especially the last second.”