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 lost to the Washington Redskins 38-26 Sunday in Landover, Md. The loss dropped the Vikings to a 4-2 record and somewhat dampened their fast start. What are your thoughts on the game and do you think the Vikings will bounce back Sunday at home against Arizona?

-Dorr: It seemed obvious when it was 9-0 that things weren’t going well and the game turned out poorly. When you have 122 yards on your first two possessions, Washington has only 10, and you lead only 6-0, something is wrong. The offense did its part to lose the game in the first period and the defense lost it in the final period when it allowed Robert Griffin, who hadn’t had a run of more than 19 yards this season, to run 76 yards on a 3rd-and-6 play late in the game. The Vikings had a couple dumb penalties, one of them a key one. The team doesn’t have a deep threat and that allows opposing defenses to cheat a little. For what it’s worth, the Vikings’ two losses have come to the two top quarterbacks in last year’s college draft. Washington receivers were so wide open Sunday, I guess because of play-action fakes. Arizona is certainly a team the Vikings can beat but let’s see if they do. Another loss could turn a promising season into another dreary one. I do think the Vikings will win Sunday.  By the way, there are seven NFC teams with winning records and only two AFC teams in this year of parity so far.

-Marxhausen:  Robert Griffin III did his best impression of Michael Vick on Sunday against the Vikings. In the past, Vick was able to expose the Vikings’ weaknesses with his legs just as much as his arm. Griffin was able to the showcase his talents, especially with a 76-yard touchdown run late in the game to seal it for the Redskins. Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder was forced to put a bulk of the weight on his shoulders when the Vikings started settling for field goals while Washington came back with touchdowns. Ponder finished with 52 passing attempts, completing 35 of them, with two interceptions. Ponder is not at the point where he can shoulder a team and lead them to victory. His valiant effort brought the Vikings back within five points before Griffin broke his run to make it a 12 point lead. The Vikings had what it took to win the game, just like they had in their first loss to the Colts. The Cardinals have one main offensive weapon in receiver Larry Fitzgerald. If they can isolate his talents and keep his production to a minimum, I see the Vikings bouncing back against struggling Arizona.

-Larson:  After two field goals, the Vikings should’ve went for the touchdown the next time they threatened. The third field goal didn’t do much except tell Washington it was still in the game. The decision to deactivate receiver Jerome Simpson for Sunday’s game was puzzling and left the Vikings with Percy Harvin as their only deep threat.

The Viking defense is having problems against rookie quarterbacks…and they’ll face another one when they travel to Seattle Nov. 4 to confront Russell Wilson, who’s played a big part in the Seahawks’ 4-2 start. The Vikings should bounce back against Arizona. If not, trouble is on the way.

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•Question:  Northwestern handed Minnesota its second Big Ten Conference loss 21-13 Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. After the game Gophers coach Jerry Kill suffered another seizure and was hospitalized overnight. Kill was expected to be back at work Monday. What are your thoughts on the Gophers and Kill’s health issue?

-Dorr: It was the first game since Kill came on the scene that I was reminded of the efforts of Tim Brewster. When you fumble the opening kickoff, slip and fall inside your 10 on the next one, and fumble seven times and have some bad exchanges between the center and quarterbacks, something is way wrong. I rode down the elevator from the press box with columnist Sid Hartman and, Gopher fan that he is, he kept repeating to me that Northwestern had a horseshoe involved. True, the Wildcats scored twice after Minnesota turnovers, but Minnesota did enough to itself to cause the loss. How about calling a time out with 8:27 left in the first half, facing a 4th and 11, and then running  a failed fake punt? Later that quarter a 17-yard loss, with Minnesota in good position, followed on a snap that was either early or the quarterback wasn’t ready. The use of the clock at the end of the first half was terrible. In the second half the Gophers had a first down on the Northwestern 26, ran for -3 on two plays, and then ran a quarterback draw for 8 yards – no passes. The list goes on and on, including messing up a drive near the end of the game that could have tied the game. At the beginning of the season I predicted the Gophers could be 6-6 if they won their first four games. Now I’m wondering where those other two wins will come from. Purdue and Illinois, and maybe Michigan State, seem the best opportunities. Kill was back to work the next day – that isn’t much of an issue in my book.

-Marxhausen: The Gophers needed to pull out a victory against Northwestern to bounce back on the road to recovery after their loss to Iowa two weeks prior. The Gophers had plenty of opportunities to narrow the gap Saturday but failed to do so late in the game. Quarterback Marqueis Gray was able to scramble for a 25 yard touchdown run, but neither Gray or Max Shortell could put the Gophers back in the end zone as they failed to convert on three fourth-down tries. Northwestern running back Vernic Mark was able to run over and around the Gopher defense, finishing with 186 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. According to reports, Kill’s seizure was mild in nature and will not affect his status for next week’s game against the tough Wisconsin Badgers. If Kill is up for the task, then seizure or not, I would like to see him on the Gopher’s sideline leading the team like a true head coach.

-Larson:  A headline on Minneapolis StarTribune columnist Chip Scoggins column Sunday summed up Saturday’s game and the Gopher program very well. It read, “What we’re hearing about improvement isn’t what we’re seeing.”  On Oct. 10, St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Tom Powers wondered if it’s time for coach Kill to stop playing the “we’re a young team” card virtually every time Minnesota doesn’t do well. In the losses to Iowa and Northwestern the Gophers have looked like the Gophers we’ve come to know – inconsistent and prone to breakdowns and mistakes. Wisconsin bruiser Montee Ball, who ran for 247 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-14 romp over Purdue Saturday, should have another huge day this Saturday. It was interesting, and perhaps sad, that both metro papers estimated that TCF Bank Stadium was just two-thirds full for the Northwestern game. You can’t blame the lousy weather for that.

I disagree with Luther regarding coach Kill’s health issues. His seizure Saturday got as much play in the metro papers and television as did the game. Don’t you think the coach’s health weighs on players’ minds and takes attention away from the program?  While we all hope Kill’s seizure issue is under control, I’m sure some players and fans are wondering when and how severe the next one might be. That’s human nature.

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•Question:  Last week the sportswriters focused on general manager Terry Ryan’s firings and reassignments on manager Ron Gardenhire’s coaching staff. This week we’ll look at the team. What does Ryan need to do to see the team rebound from back-to-back disastrous seasons? And, what are the chances the team can escape from having the worst record in the American League the past two seasons?

-Dorr: The obvious answer to what Ryan needs to do is to improve the pitching. Ryan couldn’t have foreseen the injuries to Scott Baker and Carl Pavano, nor that  Nick Blackburn would be as bad as he was. Fixing this mess is almost impossible in one year. For one thing, if the answers don’t come from within the organization (and it’s likely they won’t), what free agent pitcher worth anything will want to come to Minnesota? The Twins will somehow have to get lucky in picking up someone who pitches at a higher level than he has before. Ryan will have to  make a surprise trade that will help the team. And either Ben Revere or Denard Span has to go – you can’t have two light-hitting outfielders in the starting lineup and hope to contend. Neither should he plan on having Pedro Florimon as the shortstop, unless he picks up three ace pitchers. The chances of not again having the worst record in the AL will depend on what pitchers Ryan acquires. It should be an interesting winter.

-Marxhausen: The first and foremost issue the Twins organization has to address is the starting pitching rotation. Ranking last in the MLB, the Twins could not find a pitcher that could control a game so the team’s offense could take over and seal the victory. There are some bright spots on the Twins pitching staff, but they lack the raw talent that is conducive for a whole season to be considered successful. Either way, Minnesota can’t trust the same faces to lead the Twins next season and change is a must. Scott Diamond is a small bright spot for the Twins, but besides him, they can mix up the entire starting pitching roster. On the offensive side, I see problematic situations at first base and too many people to fill outfield positions. If the Twins can exchange Denard Span for some pitching prospects, that could be a useful move to change the team’s direction. Span probably isn’t the only one on the trading block, but something needs to be done so the past two seasons don’t repeat themselves.

-Larson:  The Twins have nowhere to go but up. And, that isn’t going to happen in 2013 when, instead of the team being the worst in the American League, it could end up being the worst in baseball. As Luther points out, what free agents are going to want to come here? Most of the top prospects in the farm system arrived at Target Field this summer, and failed. The only players who might bring needed starting pitching talent to the team via a trade are Joe Mauer and Josh Willingham and without those two the batting order takes a big hit. It’s likely to be a long, depressing winter for Twins fans.

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•Question:  The baseball playoffs have now reached the American League and National League finals, with the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees squaring off in the AL and the defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals clashing with the San Francisco Giants in the NL. So far, there has been a lot of drama and some surprises in the playoffs. What have been the best story lines for you and have you been watching much of the action?

-Dorr: I’ve watched most of the innings of most of the games, spending time one day watching almost all of the four games that day. The three teams I hoped might advance – Oakland, Baltimore and Washington – have all lost. I was hoping at least one, and maybe two, would at least make it this far. The dramatic wins have been a great story line but the best story, so far, has been the home runs by Raul Ibanez for the Yankees. There have been a lot of great Yankee players through the years who haven’t done what he has done. Despite his latest heroics, however, the Tigers have a two-game lead on the Yankees and haven’t sent their best pitcher, Justin Verlander, to the mound yet.  That might be the biggest surprise so far. I watched more baseball during the playoffs this year than I have in many years.

-Marxhausen:  I felt it was the Tigers’ year to advance to the World Series with the way the team has been playing around Triple Crown champion Miguel Cabrera. With Derek Jeter out of the Yankees lineup, the Yankees don’t have that leader that can rally the troops behind him. Jeter was effective on offense as well as defense, so he is leaving some big shoes to fill. I think the Tigers will be taking care of that series in quick fashion. On the other side, if the MLB hadn’t implemented the new wild card rule this past off season, then the Cardinals would have never been in this situation. With the worst record of all the National League playoff teams, the Cardinals overcame the Atlanta Braves in the one-game playoff, they came back in the fifth game to beat the Nationals in NLDS and now have a shot to overcome the Giants in the NLCS.  The Cardinals’ chances have improved a little with Matt Holliday’s takeout slide that injured Giant’s second baseman Marco Scutaro Monday. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinals can pull out such a victory the year the new wild card rule took effect.

-Larson:  Like Luther, I’ve watched more playoff baseball this year than in many seasons. Some thoughts:

-Few felt St. Louis would return to the playoffs after superstar Albert Pujols left and signed with the LA Angels. The “team” concept is more important in baseball than other pro sports.

-How about Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees being pinch hit for and dropped down in the batting order? And the terrible showing by New York second baseman Robinson Cano, who was being called the next Yankee superstar just a few months ago.

-How about the collapse of Cincinnati when it needed just one victory in three home games against San Francisco. And, the sad collapse of Washington in the deciding game against St. Louis.

-Detroit appears to be peaking at the perfect time. And, is there a better pitcher than the Tigers’ Verlander?

 

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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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