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.

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•Question:  The Minnesota Vikings defeated Jacksonville 26-23 in overtime in their season opener Sunday at the Metrodome. Quarterback Christian Ponder completed 20 of 27 passes for 270 yards, receiver Percy Harvin caught six passes for 84 yards, running back Adrian Peterson rushed 17 times for 84 yards and two touchdowns, and rookie Blair Walsh kicked four field goals, including a 55-yarder to send the game into overtime. What are your thoughts on the game?

-Dorr: First, let’s give credit to Rick Spielman, or whoever it was that decided to draft Walsh and cut veteran Ryan Longwell. Walsh had a tough senior year in college and Longwell was reliable. But Walsh looks to be a great addition, with longer kickoffs and the 55-yarder at crunch time. Lost in all the hoopla over the win was the decision making on a first-and-goal situation on the Jacksonville 2 at the start of the fourth quarter. On first down tiny Percy Harvin was stopped cold, then a pass was thrown to someone named Asiata, and then a third-down pass was incomplete. Neither Adrian Peterson (with 2 TDs already) nor Toby Gerhart, both power backs, were used and the Vikings ended up with a field goal instead of a touchdown that would have given them control of the game. I have no idea what the offensive coordinator and/or head coach Leslie Frazier were thinking. But a win is a win and Christian Ponder responded well on the game-tying drive and in overtime. Bring on Indianapolis.

-Marxhausen: The game was a very tough strung-out contest where both teams were very protective of and took control of the ball. Both Jacksonville and the Vikings did a good job protecting the ball by limiting their turnovers to one fumble lost apiece. Penalties and punts were also limited, producing points when going down the field. Compliments to Walsh for a superb, clutch performance to not only send the game into overtime as time expired, but also kicking a 38-yard field goal to take the lead in overtime. Ponder was only sacked twice and didn’t throw an interception. Adrian Peterson was back to carrying the load as the workhorse of the team with two touchdowns. Although they probably didn’t want to struggle to beat a poor team, Minnesota started the season with a win and for the time being, has a better record then the Packers.

-Larson:  All Viking fans knew Jacksonville was going to drive down field and score late in the game, right? What we did not know was that the Vikings would rebound in the closing seconds and send the game into overtime. Young Walsh looks like the real deal, Ponder looks better, Harvin appears sharp as ever and Peterson looks like his old self. And, the offensive line had a nice game.

But, what about the defense? It bucked at critical times, as it has in the past. Let’s see how it does this week against rookie sharpshooter Andrew Luck of Indianapolis.

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•Question:  There were some surprising results and several interesting game on the opening week of NFL play. What game caught your attention?

-Dorr: The win by Denver over Pittsburgh, the win by San Francisco over Green Bay, and the performance by rookie quarterback Robert Griffin in Washington’s 40-32 win over New Orleans were all games that got my attention. Everyone thought Denver would be better with Peyton Manning but the Broncos had to come from behind to win.  And San Francisco winning at Green Bay was a surprise for me, the Green Bay defense not showing very well. Griffin throwing for 320 yards against New Orleans was a surprise for me. I listened a bit to the Green Bay radio broadcast and the two announcers, while stressing, they said, that the replacement officials weren’t the reason Green Bay was  losing, then began ripping on those officials, even criticizing the placement of the ball after a play. Ho hum – nothing new.

-Marxhausen: The Packers-49ers game was intense and had an outcome I did not expect. The 49ers came off their red-hot 2011 season and started hot against last year’s hottest team in the regular season. San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith looks much more comfortable, with healthy weapons like Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Vernon Davis at his disposal while Frank Gore was able to pound through the Packers defense. Another interesting game that caught my eye was Peyton Manning dawning a Broncos uniform and taking control of the Pittsburgh defense late in the game. The last quarter and a half was dominated by Manning controlling the offense and hitting his receivers in tight space. He makes his team better just by being on the field. Manning outscored Pittsburgh 24-9 in the second half. Also I was quite surprised that the Rams took the Lions to the end of the game, but Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford turned it on and scored his only touchdown of the game in the two-minute drill at the end of the game that pushed them ahead of St. Louis.

-Larson:  The first round of the NFL season had to be wonderful for sports bars. A game I was interested in, in addition to several others, was the Buffalo-New York Jets game. Not because of the team match-up, but to see how Jets incumbent quarterback Mark Sanchez would do, with Tim Tebow breathing down his neck. Sanchez dazzled Jets fans by completing 19 of 27 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns as he led New York to a 48-28 victory. Tebow, in the game for nine offensive plays, rushed for 11 yards on five carries and did not throw a pass. It appears Sanchez is safe for a while.

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•Question:  The University of Minnesota football team rolled past New Hampshire 44-7 Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium to boost its record to 2-0. What are your thoughts on that game? 

-Dorr: The most impressive thing about that game was the fact that MarQueis Gray, reportedly at 250 pounds now, was able to keep from being caught by three defensive backs on his 75-yard touchdown run. And some in the press box were impressed with the speed of some of the defensive players, most of whom are not seniors. The Gophers did some good things and won easily, as they were supposed to. But let’s see how New Hampshire does the next few weeks. UNLV, the team the Gophers barely beat the week before as Gray had a terrible day, was upset by Northern Arizona, 17-14, a week after Arizona State beat Northern Arizona 63-6. Gray dropped three snaps Saturday, something a senior quarterback shouldn’t do, and there were other mistakes on offense. Give the team credit – they have won two games they should have won. The task gets tougher this week and probably even tougher the following week against a Syracuse team that lost by only 13 points to No. 2 USC.

-Marxhausen: This game was a good morale booster for a team that took as many shots as the Gophers took last season. When people think of New Hampshire, they do not think of football. New Hampshire is not Division I football, so for them to match up against a bigger school like Minnesota is close to impossible. Minnesota got a lot of criticism for struggling against a poor UNLV team, so they came out against a poor New Hampshire team and showed they can control the game and run the ball all over the field. With the optimism that comes with this victory, it can carry over to next week against Western Michigan, in which case, fans should see a similar performance as the New Hampshire win.

-Larson:  I was surprised by the final margin. I thought New Hampshire would give the Gophers a better game. But, now the Wildcats can go back to playing the likes of Central Connecticut State, William & Mary, Maine and Rhode Island. Hey, maybe the University can get one of those teams on a future schedule.

Last week Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse chided Minnesota for its cupcake schedule, harking back to the days when Missouri, Washington and Nebraska were often on the Gopher schedule. Apparently, coach Kill is trying to get out of a home-and-home contract with North Carolina that begins next season. Kill knows what’s up. Six or seven victories now means a bowl game. The University has cleared its schedule of the Dakota schools, at least until 2015 when South Dakota State comes knocking. Will the Jackrabbits still be on the schedule in 2015?

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•Question:  The Big Ten Conference had a rough weekend, with Iowa losing to Iowa State 9-6, Wisconsin losing to Oregon State 10-7, Nebraska falling to UCLA 36-30, Illinois losing to Arizona 45-14, Purdue losing to Note Dame 20-17 and Penn State losing to Virginia 17-16. Michigan defeated Air Force 31-25, Michigan State defeated Central Michigan 41-7, Ohio State topped Central Florida 31-16, Northwestern topped Vanderbilt 23-13, Indiana defeated Massachusetts 45-6 and the Gophers won over New Hampshire. What’s up with all the losses?

-Dorr: Either the Big Ten isn’t very good or there have been some upsets. The Wisconsin coach has already fired his offensive coordinator after only two weeks. The most surprising losses for me were the ones by Wisconsin and Penn State. And I was surprised that Michigan struggled to beat Air Force. Notre Dame was favored to beat Purdue and UCLA is likely a lot better than some thought – and maybe Nebraska shouldn’t have been ranked 16th anyway. Some said there wouldn’t be many defections at Penn State but there have been, and it likely will get worse since Penn State can’t go to a bowl game for a few more years. Let’s see what this week brings. Western Michigan is favored by the oddsmakers to beat Minnesota so I guess that means the Gophers haven’t impressed anyone yet.

-Marxhausen: Normally the Big Ten triumphs at the beginning of the year and waits until Big Ten play comes around to start tearing up each other’s records. The wins that the Big Ten recorded this past week came against much weaker teams other than Air Force. Starting the season with tough opponents pushes your players to be ready earlier in the season, but also can be detrimental to getting the best bowl bid. Even though some of these teams have strong senior classes like Nebraska and Wisconsin, most of the Big Ten teams have a lot of rebuilding to do in order to match up against tough football programs. In the next few weeks, the separation between the strong programs and the weak programs will show their true colors.

-Larson:  The Big Ten still has a reputation that likely gets opponents fired up to take down the big guys. That reputation is probably overrated as the Southeastern Conference now has a firm hold on college football supremacy. At one time the Big Ten had a huge edge over non-conference foes – but not anymore. The conference is being out-recruited and that’s taken a toll.

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•Question:  The Minnesota Twins retired former manager Tom Kelly’s uniform number (No. 10) Saturday. Who do you think should be the next player, or manager, to have his number retired?

-Dorr: Without having a list of possibilities in front of me, I don’t have an answer. I think the retiring of numbers has gotten out of hand by lots of teams. Some day you’ll have baseball players in the lineup with numbers in the 60s, 70s and 80s if this keeps up. A thought after being at Target Field Monday night as the Twins beat the Indians and won the series 3-1: Those in the media who are fond of saying that teams are mailing it in when they’re out of the race are clueless, to put it mildly.  Either they didn’t play or they didn’t play the right way. The Twins, after a horrid game Friday, played three good games and on Monday night, in a perfect September setting, got very good pitching (Deduno is 6-3 now), very timely hitting and played fantastic defense. Players don’t want to look bad, despite their team having a bad year, and lots of media people forget that, or don’t know it. Yes, it’s been a bad year. But the Twins (and I’m not much of a rah-rah guy) played some wonderful baseball the last three days.

-Marxhausen: First of all, Tom Kelly deserved to have his number retired at Target Field, even though he says the game isn’t about the manger or coach. He took care of his players and has done so much for the Twins organization besides winning two championships. I am not sure if there will be any new numbers to put up at Target Field anytime soon. Right now the Twins have not recognized the old Senator players, so that takes a few names off the list. After that, there is not much left to choose from. We’re going to have to wait for more players/mangers to retire..

-Larson:  Pitcher Jim Kaat is a logical choice. Or, how about shortstop Zoilo Casanova Versalles Rodriguez? Versalles was a sparkplug at the plate and on the bases and no Twins shortstop has covered more ground since Zoilo handled that position in the 1960s. He was American League Most Valuable Player in 1965, the year the Twins fell to the LA Dodgers in the World Series.

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Do you have an opinion on any of this week’s questions? Do you agree or disagree with the sportswriters? Let us know by sending an e-mail to editor.millelacscotimes@ecm-inc.com or a note to Mille Lacs County Times, 225 S.W. 2nd St. Milaca, MN 56353. Or comment online.

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