MADISON, WIS. — This was a team that had played so lousy on its home turf a week earlier that it went from a 7 1/2-point favorite against Michigan to a 13 1/2-point underdog against Wisconsin.

This was a team that shocked the 80,000-plus inside Camp Randall Stadium by taking a 14-point halftime lead, then saw it disappear during a mistake-filled second half.

This was a defense that had every reason to fade as it fought against short fields after a pair of safeties. This was an offense that had committed so many blunders it had to be tempting to get out of the snow and cold and into a warm bus as quickly as possible.

And yet the Gophers defense refused to crack after those safeties allowed Wisconsin to start at its 40 and then 48, and the Gophers offense managed to marshal a 60-yard drive that included a conversion on fourth-and-18, and somehow, some way, the visitors still had a chance for a victory that would've turned a season of improvement into an actual turnaround season.

"We had a great effort from the defense all day," quarterback Adam Weber said. "We had some big drives, including that one in the fourth quarter. But at the end, when we had a chance to get a victory, there were a couple of plays I didn't make ... that we weren't able to make.

"We have the right coaches in place. They are bringing in outstanding talent. But losing this game today shows that we aren't yet complete."

Weber is a sophomore. He suffered through the 1-11 embarrassment of 2007, enjoyed the 3-1 start in the Big Ten (and 7-1 overall), but for all the energy the Gophers brought to Wisconsin's wonderful venue on Saturday, the bottom line was harsh:

Wisconsin 35, Minnesota 32, and now the Gophers take a three-game losing streak into Saturday night's Big Ten finale against Iowa.

If Tim Brewster's rodents show up as they did when all appeared lost early Saturday evening, then Weber and Willie VanDeSteeg and their mates will be able to say goodbye to the Metrodome while happily hoisting a pig.

Consider this:

Wisconsin tied the score 24-24 early in the fourth quarter, and then Gophers returner Troy Stoudermire was blasted on the kickoff. The football scooted into the end zone, away from a couple of Badgers, and the result was a safety.

Coordinator Ted Roof's defensive troops forced a three-and-out, a punt and the Gophers still were breathing -- although starting from their 7.

Weber was submerged in the end zone on third down for a second safety. Another punt, another short field, and again the Gophers stifled the 240-pound running back twins, P.J. Hill and John Clay, and forced a punt.

"We understand that we need to get stops," defensive tackle Garrett Brown said. "That's all we sign up for is to get stops."

The Gophers held Wisconsin to 116 yards rushing, 325 yards fewer than the Badgers put up against Indiana a week earlier.

"They can run the ball as well as anyone in the country," VanDeSteeg said. "One of the things we were going to do was attack them at the line. Our front seven did a good job of that. But we let them make some plays with the pass, and that cost us the game."

Defending after the two safeties was impressive; the next challenge was impossible. A Shady Salamon fumble put the Badgers at the Gophers 11. Clay got the ball in the end zone in two carries, and it was 35-24 with 6:59 left.

The mob of red-clad Badgers students could head for their favorite haunt on State Street.

Except, no one could convince Weber of that.

The bruised, harassed quarterback drove the Gophers those 60 yards to a touchdown, with conversions on third-and-10, on fourth-and-18, and finally with a scoring pass to Salamon. A two-point conversion made it 35-32 with 4:15 still remaining.

What did the coach think of his warrior quarterback on that drive?

"I never doubt Adam Weber," Brewster said. "He's a tough kid. He keeps competing all the time."

The Gophers did that in big numbers Saturday -- competed even after the Badgers seemed to have wrestled control -- but in the end a fifth consecutive loss to Bucky.

"We had the lead; we still had a chance at the end," Weber said. "This feels like a game we should've won. That's why we're hurting."

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. •