MADISON, WIS. - Despite the beating the Gophers took in yet another rivalry game Saturday, they did improve significantly in one area. Their coach seems to have taken a step toward regaining his hold on reality.

For the first time in the current string of five losses, Tim Brewster largely stayed away from the feel-good route after the 41-23 beatdown at Wisconsin. He didn't lament that his team was only a few plays away from being undefeated, didn't sugarcoat most obvious deficiencies, didn't appear to have watched the game from a seat in an alternate universe. He sounded just like his team's fans: bitterly disappointed and steaming mad at the end.

There is one difference. Brewster's anger was directed at Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who called for a two-point conversion after the Badgers' sixth touchdown and offered the lame excuse of following the "coaching card.'' The fans' anger continues to be directed squarely at Brewster, who presided over another afternoon of inept execution by athletes who simply could not match up to their opponents.

It's probably not a good sign when progress is measured by the coach owning up to the unhappy reality of the situation. But that's where we are, now halfway through a season hurtling toward a cliff.

Like they had the week before against Northwestern, the Gophers faced another Big Ten foe just begging to be beaten. Like they had the week before, and the week before that, and so on and so on, they committed foolish and ill-timed penalties, failed to get defensive stops in critical situations and ran predictable plays that went nowhere. The only thing that changed was Brewster's willingness to forego spin control in favor of facing up to the unpleasant truth.

"That was the story line for the game, our inability to tackle, our inability to shut down the run ... and our inability offensively to stay on the field and do a better job on third down," Brewster said, adding that a better job on first and second down would have made things even easier. "It's frustrating when you don't stop them, period. I thought we certainly had a chance at halftime. I don't think we gave ourselves a chance with how we played defensively in the second half."

Though Brewster has contended the Gophers' athletes are "light years" ahead of the players he inherited from Glen Mason, there was little evidence of that Saturday. Badgers running back John Clay often carried players along for the ride while powering to 111 yards. His offensive line overpowered the Gophers to give him canyons to run through. James White gained 118 yards by always being a step ahead of his pursuers. And David Gilreath of Minneapolis led everyone with 159 all-purpose yards, a reminder of another gifted athlete who couldn't be persuaded to stay home.

Usually, Brewster resorts to the easy fallback of lauding his players' effort after games like this. But consistent effort should be the minimum requirement for a major college football team, and the problem does not lie in the players' heart or determination.

The problem is that this remains a program adrift. Save for a few solitary moments -- including Da'Jon McKnight's two slick touchdown catches in the fourth quarter and a couple of thrilling returns by Troy Stoudermire -- the Gophers again regressed. They did not appear to have any clear-cut strategy or any means to achieve it. That can't happen in a coach's fourth season.

Brewster did try to spin a couple of things in his news conference. He minimized the impact of one penalty on the Badgers' opening third-quarter drive -- a facemask call on D.L. Wilhite that gave Wisconsin a first-and-goal at the Gophers 8-yard line -- by saying he couldn't fault Wilhite's effort. He also said he wasn't going to comment on a fumble that wasn't called during that drive, then went on at length about its importance.

Mostly, though, Brewster accepted the reality of the situation, finally ending weeks of an embarrassing tendency to avoid it. The Gophers faltered badly in yet another trophy game, leaving him at 0-10 in those games and 0-10 against ranked opponents.

That means his job security will remain the main topic of discussion for at least another week. At the beginning of the season, that was the elephant in the room. Now it's a full-fledged herd, crammed into a walk-in closet and growing louder with every loss. And barring the ultimate fantasy -- a Gophers resurgence against a series of daunting opponents yet to come -- there is no amount of magical thinking that can make that go away.

Rachel Blount •