Ask the Sportswriters
Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times editor-sports editor Gary Larson, reporter Luther Dorr and former Times intern Logan Marxhausen. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: The National Football League Playoffs began last weekend, with Houston drubbing Cincinnati 31-10, New Orleans handling Detroit 45-28, the New York Giants topping Atlanta 24-2 and Denver stunning Pittsburgh 29-23 in overtime. What are your thoughts on those games?
-Dorr: There was one upset, as I expected, but I thought it might be the Bengals beating Houston (without their starting quarterback), not Denver beating Pittsburgh. I liked that Denver knocked off Pittsburgh but it was a bit of a surprise because Denver quarterback Tim Tebow hadn’t played well the past three weeks. And then he lost former Gopher Eric Decker, a top receiver, to a season-ending injury in the first half. But Tebow had two completions of 50 yards or more, one of 40, and then the final one of 80 to win the game. I wonder if any quarterback has ever done that in a playoff game, or averaged 31.6 yards per completion in a playoff game? New Orleans is an offensive machine right now and Detroit, which did well on offense, just couldn’t stop Drew Brees & Co. And Atlanta was horrible in its loss to a Giant team that may make things tough for Green Bay.
-Marxhausen: The biggest shock was Tim Tebow throwing, running and not committing a turnover against the Steeler defense. Tebow’s mobility resulted in an all-star defense not even putting a hit on Tebow the entire game. The game probably shut up some critics of Tebow’s playing style. Houston’s defense was able to pressure rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to make hasty decisions that led to turnovers, making the game lean towards Houston halfway through the second quarter. The game was over when Dalton couldn’t keep his errant passes out of defender’s hands. The New York Giants handled Atlanta’s offense and defense. The funny thing about this lopsided victory is that neither team committed a turnover and yet Atlanta’s offense couldn’t muster even a field goal. New Orleans not only scored through the air, but also scored on the ground, causing confusion for Detroit’s defense. Drew Brees showed why he broke records this season with a stellar performance of 466 passing yards, with three touchdowns on a 33-of-43 passing effort. He completed 76.7 percent of his passes.
-Larson: The game everyone was talking about was Denver’s victory over Pittsburgh, with Tim Tebow leading the way. The Giants were impressive as they shut down a touted Atlanta offense and battered the Falcon defense with a power running game. Cincinnati’s loss at Houston surprised but New Orleans victory over Detroit did not. The best team I saw last weekend was New Orleans and the best player I saw was Drew Brees.
•Question: The second round this weekend has Denver at New England and Houston at Baltimore in the AFC and New Orleans at San Francisco and the New York Giants at Green Bay in the NFC. Who are you picking in those games?
-Dorr: It’s not surprising that New England (13 1/2 points), New Orleans, Baltimore and Green Bay are favored in those games. New Orleans is the only road team among those four and they’re favored by only 3 1/2 points, while the others are favored by a touchdown or more. I think the likelihood of an upset occurring is greater in the two NFC games, mainly because of the New York defense and the San Francisco defense (and teams have shown they can move the ball against the New Orleans and Green Bay defenses). But, can Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers have bad enough days for their teams to lose? New England and Baltimore should win, so should New Orleans and Green Bay.
-Marxhausen: Even though Tebow showed that he is able to perform in the playoffs against an elite defense, going into New England to face the Patriots will prove disastrous in the end. Analysts will be looking at the week 15 match-up when the Bronco’s visited Foxborough and lost 41-23. I see the exact type of finish between that game and the playoff game that will ensue this weekend. I like Houston’s team because it stepped it up when key injuries like defensive end Mario Williams and quarterback Matt Schaub happened. But, I feel they will get more than they bargained for when they travel to Baltimore. Ray Rice ran for 1364 yards with 12 rushing touchdowns, but also caught 704 passing yards with three receiving touchdowns. He will find the holes in the Texans’ defense and break away for big gains. The Giants’ Eli Manning has been considered the quarterback to have on your team when it is trailing in the final quarter. Finishing fourth in passing yards this season (4,933), Manning is the reason this game will be half exciting. I like the Packers to handle the Giants like the Saints handled the Lions last week. I feel the Packer defense will zero in on the Giants’ weapons while Aaron Rodgers throws for five touchdowns. The closest match I see is New Orleans at San Francisco. I have counted out the 49ers many times and yet they still surprised me in the end. There is something to say about the Brees’ offense comparative to the Alex Smith offense, though. I like the veteran quarterback leading the Saints over the surprising 49ers.
-Larson: When in doubt, take the home team. Green Bay, Baltimore and New England will roll to victories. The exception will be at San Francisco where the Saints will win a high-scoring game.
•Question: Purdue handled the University of Minnesota’s men’s basketball team 79-66 Sunday at Williams Arena, dropping the Gophers to a 0-4 Big Ten Conference record. Dating back to last season, Minnesota has lost 10 of its last 11 Big Ten games. Some in the media are saying that coach Tubby Smith has failed to produce and it’s time to bring in a new coach. What’s your opinion?
-Dorr: I wasn’t that impressed when Minnesota signed Smith, although there were many who thought it was a great move. Nothing has happened in the intervening four-plus years to make me change my mind, although the run to the Big Ten semifinals a couple years ago was good, as were the two entries into the NCAA tournament. But, for whatever reason, Smith’s teams can’t (or won’t) play much defense, and they can’t (or won’t) rebound in many games. Maybe the biggest weakness has been defending the three-point shot, as witness Purdue (coming off a 20-point loss to lowly Penn State) making all six of its three-pointers in the first 6-plus minutes and going 10 of 12 in the first half. The loss of Trevor Mbakwe is huge, of course. Would the Gophers have won one or two, or maybe all three, of their first three games in the Big Ten with Mbakwe? Very likely. But when you’re leading 32-21 against Iowa, at home, with 3:30 left in the first half and then go eight minutes without scoring, you can’t just blame the loss on the absence of Mbakwe. And Sid Hartman, God love him, wondered in his column why the Gophers weren’t ranked when they were 12-1 before the Big Ten. They didn’t play anybody, Sid! I’ve been going to Williams Arena for more than 50 years and very much enjoy Gopher basketball. But there’s little excitement there anymore. Something has to change.
-Marxhausen: It is getting to be about that time. Smith, though a legendary coach, has not been able to succeed with this program much nor has he brought in standout recruits. I watched Smith coach the Kentucky Wildcats for years and he had so much control over how his team played and at what level they played at. That same energy and same ability to succeed has not transferred to Minnesota. I really don’t think that there is a viable candidate who is better than Smith at the moment nor will there be one with as much experience as he has. I would bear through the season and give him one more year because of the off-the-court issues that he has faced year-in and year-out.
-Larson: I thought athletic director Joel Maturi’s surprise hiring of Smith was stunning and Smith would lead the Gophers to high finishes in the Big Ten and deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. It hasn’t happened and the buzz over Gopher men’s basketball is sinking to the level of the buzz over football. Three players who may have made a big difference in Minnesota’s success this season, left the Gopher program and are having good seasons elsewhere on Division I teams. Players departing has been a trend at Minnesota and you have to wonder why.
Smith was hailed as a great recruiter but the steady flow of blue chip recruits that was anticipated hasn’t happened. Is it Smith….or is it the school? Maybe, it’s the latter. Firing Smith isn’t the answer unless the school brings in an even bigger name.
•Question: The college football bowl season has ended. What games stood out for you?
-Dorr: The Rose Bowl was easily the most fun to watch for me, although (and it seems like a long time ago now). Wisconsin should have/could have won that game. It was a classic case of speed (Oregon) against brawn (Wisconsin) and turned out to be a very close game. I enjoyed watching Michigan and Michigan State win close games. I watched very little of any game that didn’t involve a Big Ten team so I’m not too up on other games.
-Marxhausen: The national championship was quite revealing as the LSU offense didn’t break into Alabama territory until halfway through the fourth quarter. The critics wrote off Alabama and said it could not handle LSU. But, the Crimson Tide rebuked doubters with a stellar performance on defense and offense. Also I think that all the overtime victories were quite fun to watch. Michigan’s victory over Virginia Tech (23-20) was interesting because they made Denard Robinson do it through the air instead of on the ground. Oklahoma State’s victory over Stanford (41-38) was an exciting one with little defense played at all except for the two interceptions. Last and not least, the Michigan State Spartans’ win over Georgia was a great game as the Spartans overcame a 16-point deficit at halftime to win 33-30 in triple-overtime.
-Larson: Overall, the bowl games featured explosive offenses that overwhelmed defenses both in the air and on the ground. Alabama claimed the national title Monday night, dominating LSU 21-0 in a game that could’ve ended with an even larger spread. Credit Alabama Coach Nick Saban for establishing a passing game right away to set up his ground game. Would you want a tape of the game for your sports archives? Probably not.
The best game I watched was Oregon’s 45-38 victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Number two was Baylor’s 67-56 victory over Washington in the Alamo Bowl and No. 3 was Michigan State’s 33-30 victory over Georgia in the Outback Bowl.
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