Two Big Ten losses weigh heavy on Gophers

Updated: October 19, 2003, 4:04 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- It was only two weeks ago that the Minnesota Gophers were sitting pretty with an undefeated record and the Big Ten championship seemed completely attainable.

After Saturday's 44-38 loss to Michigan State -- Minnesota's second conference loss of the season -- the Gophers are still trying to stay optimistic about their chances. But they realize the situation is falling out of their control.

"There's no room for error," defensive tackle Darrell Reid said. "We've got to win out these last four games. The Rose Bowl might be out of our grasp at this point."

The Gophers (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten), who fell out of the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll, actually played well once they recovered from their sluggish start against Michigan State. But the Spartans were too opportunistic.

Minnesota turned the ball over three times and the Spartans converted each of them into scores.

The first mistake happened on the opening kickoff, when Jared Posthumus couldn't handle Dave Rayner's short kick and fumbled the ball. The Spartans took over and scored to go up 7-0.

Asad Abdul-Khaliq committed the second turnover when he fumbled after being sacked at the Minnesota 40. Again, the Spartans drove and scored a touchdown.

The third mistake was a big one; Marion Barber III fumbled after DeAndra Cobb silenced the crowd with his 100-yard kickoff return. The Spartans recovered Barber's fumble and kicked a field goal for a 34-17 halftime lead.

Factor in superb special teams play from Michigan State -- Cobb's return, Rayner's three field goals and great punting by Rayner and Brandon Fields -- along with Minnesota's stagnant running game and it's a miracle the Gophers were able to make the score respectable.

"I would have told you we would have lost by 60 points," coach Glen Mason said. "That shows how well this team hung in there and battled."

The players know that hanging in there won't be enough for a conference title.

"In the Big Ten, you can't turn the ball over like that," Abdul-Khaliq said.

Minnesota's next opponent is Illinois, which has gotten hammered the last two weeks against the Spartans and Michigan, the other team that's beaten the Gophers this season.

The players said they had no trouble finding motivation for Michigan State after the previous week's heartbreaking loss to the Wolverines.

"I felt the whole team was prepared. We felt we definitely had to get back, get up from last week. It just didn't happen," Abdul-Khaliq said.

With the Spartans and Purdue both undefeated in conference action and Wisconsin and Michigan looking strong, another loss would likely kill all hopes Minnesota has for a piece of the Big Ten title.

Still, Mason said he's not discouraged.

"I know all the problems that we had today can be corrected and that is why I am really excited to get back to practice," he said.

And the players learned from last week that they can't afford to pout over a disappointing loss.

"Nothing you can do about it," Abdul-Khaliq said. "Move on to next week."

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Andres Ybarra can be reached at aybarra(at)ap.org.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index