Gophers look to improve defense against Big Ten

Updated: October 21, 2003, 7:36 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota's defensive players say they're better than they were a year ago, which makes their struggles in critical games all the more frustrating.

"We attack better, we're better up front, we're better in the back and ... I don't know," defensive tackle Darrell Reid said Tuesday. "I can't get away from this 'inconsistent' word, it keeps on happening."

As the cliche goes, the Gophers' defense is consistently inconsistent. And it's one of the things that's costing Minnesota its Big Ten title hopes. While the offense has no trouble scoring points, the defense's inability to keep opponents from doing the same is a problem.

Minnesota (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) has scored 73 points the last two weeks against ranked Michigan and Michigan State teams -- their opponents have combined for 82, of which 31 points came in one quarter against the Wolverines.

"We have our lows, too many lows and that's why we've been losing games," Reid said. "Against Michigan, we started out strong and then we had the low right there at the end of the game. Then against Michigan State, we started out low then came on strong at the end of the game. We've just got to get rid of those valleys that we've been having."

With half of the Big Ten season already gone, Minnesota -- which fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 poll after Saturday's loss to the Spartans -- is eighth in the conference in total defense.

The Gophers are tied with Northwestern for the most touchdowns allowed in conference play with 12 -- nine of those scores have been rushing. And they've given up 1,042 yards passing, which ranks next-to-last to Wisconsin's 1,199.

"We sometimes have ups and downs," Gophers linebacker Kyle McKenzie said. "I think we lose focus of what we're trying to achieve. ... These two losses have helped us really focus."

Minnesota has yet to play a complete defensive game against a conference opponent.

In their first Big Ten game against Penn State, the Gophers allowed big yardage through the air (193) and on the ground (226). Against Northwestern, they did well against the run (76) but allowed 208 yards passing.

The Gophers secondary was burned by the Wolverines' 389 passing yards, which more than made up for the paltry 94 rushing yards. And the Spartans had success at both -- 252 yards passing, 161 rushing.

"Any good defense once in a while will give up a couple of things, and we've been giving up too much at times," Reid said.

This season's defense is doing a better job of keeping the team in close games, but many expected better results with new defensive coordinator Greg Hudson in charge and 10 returning starters.

When asked about the defense's improvement, coach Glen Mason would only point to the 31 points Michigan scored against his team in the fourth quarter.

"We couldn't stop a pass at all," he said.

The unit will have a chance to get its confidence back this weekend when it faces an Illinois offense that ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten. But with the conference championship quickly slipping out of reach, the players know they can't afford to look past Illinois' 1-7 record.

"We can go to a good bowl," McKenzie said. "We've just got to play hard these next four games."

^------=

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

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