You might call the Gophers' 35-21 loss on Saturday to eighth-ranked California a moral victory because coach Tim Brewster's team actually did a great job of shutting down the visitor's great offense and running back Jahvid Best in the second half.

But Brewster would take none of the moral victory, even though the Gophers proved they can play with most of the teams in the Big Ten, especially on defense. Cal was ranked higher than any team in the conference except Penn State.

The Gophers coach was very critical of how his team didn't make plays in the fourth quarter, when the Gophers had a chance to score one of the biggest upsets in recent team history. The last time a Maroon and Gold team defeated a top-10 team was in 2000 against Ohio State.

While most of the critics have ranked the 2009 Gophers near the bottom of the conference, Brewster has been very high on his team and believes it can play with the best in the Big Ten.

"We didn't make the plays near the end we needed to, when we had the chance to win the game, and in that I'm very disappointed," Brewster said. "We had chances, and what we have to do is make sure we take advantage of every opportunity we get. They put the ball on the ground a little bit, and we have to take advantage of turnovers and go score."

For the Gophers to win this game, they had to control the ball on the ground, but they rushed for only 37 yards.

"We obviously need to run the ball better," he said. "We're going to keep working to run the ball better. It's a work in progress. They are a great defensive football team. We had some solid runs today, but we didn't have any consistency in the running game."

Wanted to run

Quarterback Adam Weber agreed the running game needs improving.

"I think looking at the numbers today we wanted to run the ball and be effective at it, but obviously Cal's got a very, very strong defense, especially stopping the run -- and they proved that today," he said. "We were able to make plays when we had to throwing the ball and sometimes even big running plays.

"But yeah, later on in the season, as far as the season goes, especially when we get into the Big Ten, we're going to have to run the ball. We're going to have to establish the run."

Weber was asked if hanging with Cal until the final quarter will give the team confidence it can play with the good teams.

"Obviously, our first two games we didn't feel, at least offensively, that we played up to our standards, and today we showed spurts of it against one of the best teams in the country," Weber said. "This team can be good when we play well."

About his interception that gave Cal an opportunity to score a second touchdown in the second half, Weber said: "Making mistakes, especially in crucial situations, you can't [make them and] be able to beat teams of the Cal caliber. We had an opportunity and, you know, going into that fourth quarter, we had momentum. I felt like we had it. I thought we had something special. That's something we'll learn from. We'll come out of it and make positives out of it."

Northwestern is next, on the road. The Wildcats lost to Syracuse on Saturday. The Gophers can win that one.

Penalty on Cal hurt

Tony Mortenson, the former Gophers reserve quarterback who is now an intern assisting associate athletic director Marc Ryan, couldn't believe how a false-start penalty on California might have cost the Gophers a chance to win.

There was 8: 27 left to play in the fourth quarter with the score tied 21-21.

The Golden Bears had third-and-11 from their own 27, and the Gophers stopped a short run by Kevin Riley. But a false start was called, and on the subsequent third-and-16 play, the Bears completed a 35-yard pass to the Gophers 43 that kept the drive alive and led to what was the winning touchdown.

Incidentally, the completion was the first time Cal gained a first down in the second half.

Then a Weber interception on the next drive led to another Cal score, but looking back, you have to believe the way the Gophers defense dominated in the second half, that penalty was the turning point.

Best, the great All America running back for Cal, had rushed 13 times for 114 yards net in the first half. But in the final 30 minutes he was limited to 13 carries for 17 yards. The Golden Bears rushed for only 20 yards in the second half -- that's how well the Gophers defended against Best.

Jottings

Gophers athletic director Joel Maturi was upset with many of the fans who left before the game was over, no doubt to try to beat the traffic. He felt that the home-field advantage and the noise were big in this game. He thought it was unfair to the Gophers to leave early. And it was especially a big advantage when Cal was going toward the student section, where the noise made it very difficult for the visiting quarterback to change the play.

Nate Triplett, who had led the Gophers in tackles in victories over Syracuse and Air Force, again led his team in tackles -- seven solo and three assisted. But the Delano senior missed the last few minutes of the game when one of his legs cramped up.

Receiver Eric Decker needed four stitches in his chin after being knocked out after he caught the first touchdown scored by Gophers to make it 14-7.

The Gophers, who had eight penalties for 69 yards in the victory over Air Force, got two penalties for a total of 20 yards in the first quarter and wound up getting only one penalty after that for a total of three for 34 yards. Cal had four for 45 yards.

Former Gophers running back Pinky McNamara contributed $1.25 million to the U athletic department so that the football locker room would be named after his football coach, Murray Warmath.

The game was a sellout. However, there were 100-plus empty seats in the student section.

Cameron Jordan, son of former Viking Pro Bowl tight end Steve Jordan, started at defense end for Cal and did a good job rushing the passer, but he contributed only one solo tackle. ... Will Kapp, son of former great Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp, played fullback at Cal but didn't carry the ball. Both the Jordan and Kapp families attended for the game.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com