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:  What are your thoughts on the Vikings-Lions game?
-Dorr: Who’d have thought a few weeks ago that defense would win a game against the Lions? But that was the case Sunday as the Viking offense managed the lowest total yardage of any NFL team that won. It did appear that having receiver Jerome Simpson in the lineup helped the offense but the offense couldn’t score a touchdown. And Percy Harvin didn’t catch a pass the last 41 minutes of the game. The game was remindful of when the Lions found a way for decades to lose to the Vikings, no matter what. The Viking defense seems more physical than it has been the past few years and that, to me, was the most impressive thing about the win. Now comes a game against 1-3 Tennessee that the Vikings are actually expected to win. A 4-1 start would raise Purple Mania to a fever pitch against the Redskins a week later. One thing should be noted: The regular officials missed a call in the Thursday night game and then missed some Sunday, a couple of them very obvious in the Green Bay game on national TV, the Packer fans booing loud and long. I think the honeymoon period with the regular officials is over for the fans, players and coaches.
-Marxhausen: The Vikings game was exactly the proof needed that special teams play an important role in football and can be very influential even though they make up a smaller percentage of plays. Percy Harvin’s 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown put the Vikings in a very good spot to start the game. The pressure was on the Lions to score right away so the Vikings couldn’t take control of the game and put it out of reach. That caused the Lions offense to start with a panic about them, causing mental and fundamental errors. Not only did kickoffs work for the Vikings, but also later on a very impressive 77-yard punt return for a touchdown by Marcus Sherels took even more pressure off the offense to score and put more control in the Vikings hands. The Vikings have already matched their total wins of last season. There is a lot of football left, but the Vikings have a lot of positives working in their favor.
-Larson:  I stepped into a sports bar near the end of Sunday’s game and the stools and booths were nearly full of Viking fans clad in their heros’ colors and hooting up a storm. A bartender told me there’s been more excitement and noise in the last two weeks at the place than the Twins created in six months. All a pro team has to do to generate some excitement is create some hope. The Vikings have this season, the Twins didn’t.
Who knows how long the excitement will continue? I didn’t expect the team to be 3-1 and possible victories the next two weeks would push that mark to 5-1. At 5-1, or even 4-2, fans can start talking “playoffs,” if they haven’t already.
While the team struggled on offense against Detroit, the defense was impressive and didn’t sink into its frequent second-half letdown. Special-teams play was great, with the two touchdown return plays earning spots on ESPN’s “Top 10 Plays.”
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•Question:  The University of Minnesota football team suffered its first loss of the season Saturday, falling at Iowa 31-13 in its Big Ten Conference opener. What are your thoughts on that game and the Gophers as they continue Big Ten play?
-Dorr: It wasn’t a big surprise that Minnesota lost at Iowa City but I thought the team would be more competitive. With Iowa coming off an embarrassing loss at home, I expected Minnesota to have a hard time winning that game. And all the optimism in Minnesota stemmed from a 4-0 start against teams such as UNLV (1-4), New Hampshire (3-2 against inferior opposition), Western Michigan (2-3, including a 37-17 loss at home to Toledo Saturday) and Syracuse (1-3). The Big Ten, as weak as it seems to be, is a lot better than the teams Minnesota played before the conference schedule began. True, the Gophers did some good things in winning those four games, and they appear to be improved on defense, although the Hawkeyes ran all over them the first half. The return of MarQueis Gray can’t come soon enough, despite what some people think. Ranked Northwestern will offer an explosive offense in Minnesota’s next game, a home game on Oct. 13. The best college performance from a state team last Saturday came from St. Cloud State junior quarterback Phillip Klaphake, a former Milaca student and Princeton High School grad. His TD pass as the clock ran out gave St. Cloud a 51-49 win over  UMD, ranked No. 2 in Division 2. He threw 5 touchdown passes, ran for 47 yards and a touchdown, and his 466 yards passing broke the single-game record at SCSU.
-Marxhausen: Even though Iowa had a rough start to the season, it still put up the tough Big Ten competition that dimmed the Gophers’ good start to the season. Iowa put the heat on the Gophers right away in the first half, jumping out to a 24-0 lead. Iowa running back Mark Weisman made the Gophers look slow and exposed their improper tackling form when he ran 177 yards on 21 carries with a touchdown Saturday. On the other side, quarterback Max Shortell looked uncomfortable with the weight on his shoulders, surrendering three interceptions to the Hawkeye defense with one returned for a touchdown. The Gophers need to learn from their mistakes and come back to put up stiff competition against the No. 24 ranked Northwestern Wildcats.
-Larson:  The Gophers knew beforehand that playing a Big Ten game at Iowa City would not be like facing a Nevada-Las Vegas or New Hampshire. It was no surprise that they got clobbered. However, the lousy tackling, mistakes, overall inconsistency and lack of a running game were disappointing, especially after the teams had four-plus weeks to tune up for this game.
But, we all knew the Gophers weren’t going to roll through their Big Ten schedule and fans shouldn’t write the team off. A couple Big Ten victories (Purdue, Illinois?) and a bowl bid would make it a good season for coach Jerry Kill and his team.
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•Question:  The Minnesota Twins Joe Mauer will end the 2012 season contending for another batting title and possibly setting a personal mark for games played. What do you think of his season and how much of a factor was he for this losing team?
-Dorr: Mauer was certainly more of a positive factor for the team than he was last season. And he’s not the reason for the dismal record. I think most everyone who follows the team closely realizes that his $23 million annual salary is a detriment to the team, as far as being able to spend money on other players (specifically pitchers) that could help make the team better. But what’s done is done, and if you accept the fact that Mauer isn’t going to  hit home runs, he’s a decent player,  although his days of being considered a Gold Glove catcher are gone. I wish he’d hit more first-pitch fastballs but he’s not going to change his approach after this many years. What you see is what you get, big salary included. And what we’ve seen in the losses Sunday to Detroit, and at Toronto Monday night, is what we’ve seen all year – a failure to hit with runners in scoring position and no outs or one out.
-Marxhausen: Mauer is still a ray of sunshine for the Twins. Displaying that he can compete all season long is a good sign for his value with the team or as a tradable commodity. Finishing the season with around a .322 batting average is a good sign, especially after finishing last season with a batting average of .287 over 82 games, compared to playing (as of Monday) 145 games in 2012. He is a good leader and a very positive influence in the locker room, but he is not the only leader needed for the Twins to overcome their recent losing records. I do not blame him for taking a large sum of money from the Twins organization, but it will be a factor if the Twins can’t shell out more money to put winners around him.
-Larson:  The good news is Mauer appears healthy and showed this season that he can still hit for average and get on base. His power surge of 2009 (28 home runs) appears to have been a fluke but he still fits well at No. 3 (I’d bat him No. 2) in the batting order and is a star, if not a super star. Mauer is an asset and, while the number of Mauer replica jerseys being worn is dwindling, he’s still a favorite of many fans.
That said, how many more losses would the Twins have had this season without Mauer? Four more? Eight more? And, after the loss column hits 90, does the number really matter? In past years when Mauer has contended for a batting title there was always a buzz as the season entered its final weeks, if not all season long. I’ve run into many fans the past few weeks who didn’t even know he was in the chase for another crown.
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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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