The voice on the other end of the phone answered affably and with a British accent.
“Every year,’’ Rhys Lloyd said, laughing, “like clockwork.’’
It’s Gophers-Wisconsin week, and that means Lloyd is getting an annual chance to reminisce about a career kicking highlight, though it’s one he wouldn’t mind recalling on a not-so-yearly basis.
Lloyd, you see, was the key player in Minnesota’s last victory over Wisconsin, the last time a Gophers player earned the right to touch Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Fourteen consecutive times the Badgers have won the axe, and the Gophers on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium will try to end that streak before it reaches a decade and a half.
“That would be great,’’ the 36-year-old Lloyd said from his Orlando home.
Until that happens — this year’s Gophers (5-6, 2-6 Big Ten) are 10½-point underdogs to the Badgers (7-4, 5-3) — Lloyd’s big moment will be the most recent Minnesota highlight.
But what a highlight it was.
On Nov. 8, 2003, the 24th-ranked Gophers (8-2) met Wisconsin (6-3) in the Metrodome. Minnesota, with the backfield duo of Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney, bolted to a 24-6 second-quarter lead, only to see the Badgers pull even, 34-34, with 7:15 left in the fourth quarter. After the teams traded punts, the Gophers got the ball back with 2:49 to play. With backup quarterback Benji Kamrath playing in place of injured Asad Abdul-Khaliq, the Gophers went on an 11-play march that set up Lloyd to win the game.
“I remember just feeling pretty confident,’’ said Lloyd, a junior then. “It was one of those days where the guys seemed different. Even when we went through adversity in losing some players, it didn’t faze anybody.’’
Adversity on that drive included a second-and-19 situation in which Kamrath first hit Jared Ellerson for 10 yards and Aaron Hosack for 22 to the Wisconsin 45-yard line with 1:21 left. “I got more and more confident as we were going down the field,’’ Lloyd said.
Runs of 13 and 11 yards by Barber and 3 by Maroney moved it to the Wisconsin 18. The Gophers called timeout with 1 second left and brought in Lloyd.
Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez used his team’s final timeout, trying to ice him.
“One of the players from Wisconsin started talking to me and tried to mess me up. And I responded with some stuff of my own,’’ Lloyd said. “All of the guys were like, ‘Just concentrate on what you’re doing.’ I said, ‘I’ve never been more confident. Let’s just do this.’ ’’
Gophers coach Glen Mason had one last bit of advice before the 35-yard field-goal attempt.
“We had a laugh and a joke, and he just said, ‘All right, once you go out there, make sure you go and get the axe after you’ve made it,’ ’’ Lloyd recalled.
Lloyd promptly split the uprights to give the Gophers a 37-34 win and sprinted to the Badgers sideline to seize the prize. “Once the ball hit my foot, I just remember taking off,’’ he said. “As soon as I hit it, I looked up and knew it was good.’’
He was the first of the Gophers to arrive at the Wisconsin bench, found Paul Bunyan’s Axe and unsheathed it, with his teammates joining in to parade it around the Dome.
“For the value of what the game is, the college rivalry for what it is … it probably would be my biggest kick,’’ said Lloyd, whose 42-yard field goal with 23 seconds left in the 2003 Sun Bowl gave the Gophers a 31-30 win over Oregon to cap a 10-3 season.
Fifteen years later, Lloyd still follows the Gophers closely, and he and his wife, Tina, plan to move to the Twin Cities to raise their three boys. He attended last week’s home game against Northwestern and likes the direction the program is going under coach P.J. Fleck. “In two or three years, I think we’re going to be pretty special,’’ he said, “but it’s just a learning process.’’
A win over the Badgers to end that long skid would be a tangible step.
“Wisconsin aren’t exactly great this year, and it might be an opportunity,’’ said Lloyd, who knows all about seizing an opportunity to beat the Badgers.
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org