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: It was a big weekend for Minnesota sports teams as the Vikings and Gophers scored victories and the Twins took two of three games from the Tigers in Detroit. Let’s start with the Vikings. What are your thoughts on Minnesota’s 24-13 victory over San Francisco at the Metrodome Sunday? And, how are you calling next Sunday’s game at Detroit?
-Dorr: I was a little surprised last week when all kinds of media people were anointing San Francisco as perhaps the best team in the NFC. That may still happen but the Vikings banged the 49ers all around the plastic grass at the Metrodome and earned that victory as Christian Ponder looked a little more like an NFL quarterback. Perhaps Minnesota is better than we thought and perhaps San Francisco is not as good as some thought. But, remember, we’re only three weeks into the season. Without having seen the Lions play this year, predicting Sunday’s outcome is tough. I was surprised the Lions lost Sunday but there were lots of games last week – nearly half – in which the outcomes were a surprise. And the Vikings have lost to the Lions the last three times the teams have played. Now, if quarterback Matthew Stafford’s leg injury proves to be serious, the Vikings should have a good chance in the Motor City. It’s a big game for both teams, the Vikings moving to 3-1 with a win and the Lions falling to 1-3 with a loss, and almost certainly falling out of contention in the NFC North. Perhaps the addition of wide receiver Jerome Simpson will help the Vikings, as far as a deep threat.
-Marxhausen: The Vikings looked solid all around on Sunday, from the offense to the defense to the special teams. Most surprisingly, Christian Ponder was not pressured so he could make solid, logical decisions with the ball. The 49ers are known for their strong defense and the ability to crush the opposition’s chances at advancing the ball, but the Vikings were able to balance the run and the pass to keep the 49ers guessing. Harvin was getting thrown to all over the field as Ponder’s favorite target, but tight end Kyle Rudolph came up big, showcasing two big touchdown catches. It is tough to say what kind of Vikings team will show up against the Lions next week. Detroit will be stiff competition because it is the first division game of the season and the game will be heated. The Lions will not take the Vikings lightly after the display they put up against the 49ers. With a shoulder injury to Matthew Stafford, the Vikings can take advantage of that and put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, so he makes poor decisions. I see the Vikings pulling out a close one against the Lions.
-Larson: Wasn’t it fun to watch a Vikings game that brought back some memories of how the team used to play? The team came up with a pretty solid game and coach Leslie Frazier should get a pat on the back – at least for one week! It was nice to see how quarterback Christian Ponder made use of his team’s best weapons – receiver Percy Harvin, back Adrian Peterson and tight end Kyle Rudolph. And, it was nice to see the defense not collapse at the end of the game.
But, the big question is, “can the team play well for two-straight games?” That’s been a problem many times over the years. I see a 24-20 Detroit victory.
•Question: The University of Minnesota completed non-conference play 4-0 with a 17-10 win over Syracuse Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. What are your thoughts on that game and the Gophers’ chances in Big Ten Conference play, starting this Saturday at Iowa, which was stunned at home by Central Michigan Saturday to drop to 2-2. And, how are you picking the Minnesota-Iowa game?
-Dorr: You may or may not believe this but one of the ink-stained wretches in the press box at TCF Bank Stadium turned to me in the fourth quarter and said: Do you think the Gophers should be ranked if they are 4-0? I emphatically answered, “No.” The next question was: “OK, if they are 4-0 and beat Iowa, should they be ranked?” I gave the same answer and got a disgusted look in return. Consider these results: UNLV is 1-3 in four home games, beating Air Force (1-2) 38-35 last week. New Hampshire is 2-2, has beaten Holy Cross and Central Connecticut State, and gave up 64 points in a loss to Old Dominion last week. Old Dominion has beaten such powers as Hampton, Duquesne and Campbell. Syracuse is 1-3, the win coming over Stony Brook. But, Syracuse was averaging 33 points and 530 yards a game before the Gophers shut them down Saturday. I’m as big a Gopher fan as there is around and am glad to see them at 4-0, and obviously playing better on defense. I haven’t seen one second of an Iowa game and thus don’t feel qualified to guess at Saturday’s result. It would have been better for the Gophers if the Hawkeyes had won last Saturday. The Big Ten is obviously way down, Iowa is apparently down, and Minnesota at least has a chance Saturday, IF the improvement we’ve seen is real and not because it came against very inferior opponents. I still think Jerry Kill is the man for the job.
-Marxhausen: This is exactly where the Gophers wanted to be at the end of non-conference play. The Gophers did seem a little reserved when they were trying to advance the ball. Having Max Shortell start at quarterback in the place of Marqueis Gray led the Gophers to heavily rely on running back Donnell Kirkwood to lead the offense. Shortell was not entirely accurate with his passes, completing only 16 of 30, but he did not turn the ball over like Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib did. On the other side, the Gopher defense put up two interceptions that stopped the Orange from advancing the ball and holding their strong offense to one touchdown. Iowa is looking questionable at best for the start of this season and that puts the Gophers in a good position to win their first Big Ten game of the season. I look for Minnesota to top Iowa and improve to 5-0.
-Larson: A 4-0 record, even with a weak schedule, deserves some applause. So far, coach Jerry Kill’s team looks significantly improved over last year. There have been fewer breakdowns and mistakes. However, Minnesota will be facing an Iowa team that has to win. The Gophers have topped Iowa two-straight seasons, but that streak ends Saturday. The Hawkeyes win, 33-23.
•Question: The Twins lost the first game of the Detroit series 8-0 but roared back to clip Detroit twice Sunday, 10-4 in the afternoon and 2-1 in 10 innings Sunday night. How much hope should Twins fans take away from Sunday’s sweep?
-Dorr: I don’t know that there is hope to be taken from those wins, or even that the Twins were 6-3 in Detroit this season. The team might lose three in a row to the mighty Yankees. But I think it does prove that this team hasn’t thrown in the towel, despite their horrid season. When Minnesota lost 8-0 Friday night, I again heard a media person say that the Twins were just going through the motions at the end of a bad season. Then the two starting pitchers shut down that very dangerous Detroit lineup Sunday and the Twins won a doubleheader. Miguel Cabrera, the MVP of the American League in my mind, did nothing Sunday and that doesn’t happen very often. Joe Mauer even got within six points of Cabrera for the batting title but then went 0-for-5 in the second game. I talked with a guy outside the Metrodome Sunday morning and he said it was going to be a bad day for Minnesota because the Twins were going to lose two in Detroit and the 49ers were going to whip the Vikings. Didn’t get a chance to talk to him later. Know what still bugs me about the Twins? They got absolutely nothing in trades for J.J. Hardy (21 HR, 66 RBIs after 30 and 80 last season) or Delmon Young (18 HR, 72 RBIs). Both could fit in quite nicely in the fairly punchless Minnesota lineup.
-Marxhausen: It is pleasant to see the Twins take division match-ups seriously, even when things are not looking the most positive. With eight games remaining on the schedule, the 64-90 Twins are looking to end the season on a good note. The taste in every fan’s mouth is pretty sour right now, so ending the season on what could look like a positive note could send a message to the fans that 2013 could be better. These wins are a plus, but nothing more than a moral victory. As of now, nobody on the team is safe for next season so let the competition between players begin.
-Larson: Like Luther, I don’t think there is much hope to be taken from last weekend’s games, or any of the remaining games. The whole season was pretty much a painful experience, with the Twins struggling from beginning to end. There could be some hope taken from the mediocre (to lousy) play of Chicago and Detroit this month. Both will return strong teams next season but, unless they plug some holes, neither is looking like a team that is going to run away with the Central Division title next year.
•Question: The Minnesota Lynx begin their bid for second straight WNBA playoff title when they meet Seattle in a best-of-three series starting Friday at home. What are the team’s chances of making it two in a row?
-Dorr: I haven’t seen any Lynx games so I can’t tell you how the team is playing. But it’s always hard to repeat unless you’re a dominating team. I think it will be hard for the team to repeat.
-Marxhausen: The Lynx have looked as strong as they did last year except for one thing, they now have a championship year of experience. The Lynx finished the season with the best record in the WNBA and had an impressive 16-1 home record. They are exactly in the spot that they want to be to make it to the finals. The bad part of their impressive record is that everyone will be looking to take out the best team in the playoffs. The Lynx have to remain poised and clutch. They know what it takes to win a championship and are thirsting for another one to match the one they earned last year.
-Larson: They Lynx should roll to another playoff title. They have the best roster in the WNBA and the best coach in Cheryl Reeve. No other team can match the combination of Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Agustus, the playoff MVP last year, and Maya Moore. And, the team has more depth than a year ago.
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