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 boosted their record to 5-2 by topping the Arizona Cardinals 21-14 Sunday at the Metrodome. What are your thoughts on the game and who are you picking when the Vikings host Tampa Bay tonight (Thursday)?

-Dorr: A win is a win is a win. There’s lot of criticism this Monday morning of quarterback Christian Ponder and there’s no denying he had a bad game. But how soon the (somewhat) faithful forget. He was 20 for 27 in the opening win over Jacksonville and hit a couple very good passes to set up the overtime field goal that won the game. He took the Vikings on a touchdown drive to apparently win the game against Indianapolis (27 for 35, 2 TDs) and then watched as the defense gave it away. He was 21 for 35 with two touchdowns, and ran one in, during the win over heavily-favored San Francisco, was just OK in the win over Detroit and then was 25 for 35  with 2 TDs in the win over Tennessee. He threw for 352 yards and 2 TDs in the loss to Washington. Although I don’t usually say too much about play calling, knowing that those offensive coordinators know a lot more about football than I do, what was the thinking at the end of the half when Ponder ended up throwing an interception? There was a time out with 14 seconds left, deep in Minnesota territory, and then a short pass was called and the interception thrown. If completed, the Vikings would have had 5 seconds left and 70 yards to go. That call made no sense at all. And the head coach had no good explanation for it after the game.  The Vikings missed a lot of tackles against an unproven running back who did not previously have a 100-yard game. Tampa Bay offers an offense that had 513 yards Sunday in a loss to New Orleans and averaged 7.5 yards a play. But I’ll still pick the Vikes against the Bucs because I’m a homer.

-Marxhausen: After starting the season with zero interceptions through four games, Christian Ponder has thrown two interceptions per game the last three games. He started the season poised under center and calm under pressure, but has made mental mistakes with the ball resulting in turnovers. The run game on the other hand had extreme success as Adrian Peterson pushed the ball at will with a 153-yard game on 23 carries, with one crossing the goal line. Arizona quarterback John Skelton helped the Viking defense look good, with Harrison Smith running an 31-yard interception to the house for a defensive touchdown. The Vikings have shown that they can outlast their opponents this season. Where inconsistency fell on the Vikings last season, persistence has fallen on the Vikings this season. Although it will be a short week, I the Vikings will be able to move past Tampa Bay to a 6-2 record.

-Larson:  Like Luther, I don’t think one lousy outing should nullify the progress Ponder has made this season. He will bounce back. It’s amazing how hard Adrian Peterson is running, and cutting, following major knee surgery. He said he would be back at full strength and that’s what has happened.

While I like Ponder, can you imagine Minnesota’s offense with Washington’s Robert Griffin III at the helm? It’s Minnesota over Tampa Bay, 24-17.

And, yes, Luther is a homer.

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•Question:  The University of Minnesota football team fell to 0-3 in the Big Ten and 4-3 overall as Wisconsin drilled the Gophers 38-13 at Wisconsin Saturday. What are your thoughts on the game and coach Jerry Kill’s decision to lift the red shirt tag off freshman quarterback Philip Nelson and start him against the Badgers?

-Dorr: I thought the decision to try an onside kick, trailing only 24-13, was a bad one. The game became a rout after that. The defense has over pursued greatly the past two weeks and given up a bunch of long touchdown runs, although you can argue that Wisconsin has a very good running attack. Playing Nelson? I can see not playing him, saving the red shirt tag, and having him as a four-year starter if he’s that good. I don’t think I would have played him Saturday but the coach is there and sees practice every day. Nelson was OK on Saturday but you sure can’t have your quarterback carrying the ball that much (16 times) if you want to keep him healthy. The running backs hardly got the ball. And the Gophers had fewer total yards than in any game this season Maybe the decision to play him will turn out to be a good one but I disagreed Saturday.

-Marxhausen: Coach Jerry Kill was pushed into a corner that forced him to take the red shirt tag off Nelson and ask him to play against a very tough Wisconsin team on the road for the first game of his collegiate career. The Badgers crushed the Gophers with a ground game that could not be stopped. Nelson was able to hit the end zone twice but the defense couldn’t stop the Badger running game. Wisconsin backs  James White and Montee Ball lit up the stat sheet with impressive long runs that ended in 175 yards on 15 carries and three rushing scores for White and 166 yards on 24 carries and two scores for Ball. Even if Nelson is starting next week, the Gophers have a much better shot of beating Purdue than the last three Big Ten foes the team has faced. Purdue has lost all three Big Ten games it has played this season, including a very familiar score in a 38-14 loss to Wisconsin two weeks ago.

-Larson:  When your quarterback has 47 more yards (67) than your top running back (20) you’re in big trouble. Once again, Minnesota did not look crisp, but Wisconsin had a lot to do with that. This team isn’t headed anywhere this season, so I would’ve kept the red shirt tag on Nelson. Coach Kill has stated that the program has red-shirted a talented group and it would’ve been best to keep Nelson with that bunch.

Purdue could be the biggest game so far for Kill. If Minnesota loses, not many will be paying attention the final four games of the season.

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•Question:  Coach Kill and Gopher athletic director Norwood Teague took a huge public relations hit last week when it was announced that Minnesota is paying the University of North Carolina $800,000 to opt out of a two-game series with the Tar Heels. Kill said he felt the Gophers need to score victories over lower-level competition in order to build players’ confidence. What are your thoughts on the decision which was chastised by the media, fans and University students?

-Dorr: It wasn’t as big a deal for me as it was for some others. Some teams play other teams a million dollars to come to their stadium to play, not that that’s the same as this deal. Check out some of the teams that some of the top teams play before conference play starts. All that said, I think it would have been OK if the Gophers kept North Carolina on the schedule, although the head coach didn’t want to do it. Minnesota got four wins over not-very-good competition this year and it hasn’t seemed to have helped.

-Marxhausen:  It seems like a bit of a steep slope to take just to get rid of two games that could be considered winnable in the eyes of some. I understand building confidence in your players is important, but to sacrifice that much money to just take them off the schedule only to add another team with a worse reputation and a better chance of starting with a good record seems ludicrous in my eyes. Kill is looking to pack his nonconference schedule with powder-puff teams so the Gophers will make it a bowl game, but it will be a lower-level bowl game for all the teams that made the cutoff six-wins mark. These weak nonconference games are not the best way to prepare for the nitty-gritty football that is played in the Big Ten. Michigan’s Head Coach Brady Hoke has agreed to start their nonconference games with usual top-of-the-list Alabama in order to prepare his players earlier rather than later for tough games. While I don’t recommend going out to seek teams like Alabama for the Gophers, they can’t shy away from tougher opponents because the players’ feelings might be frayed if they start the season on a losing note.

-Larson:  Some things are clear here. Gosh, you’d think Paul “Bear” Bryant or Bobby Bowden, or heck, John Gagliardi, was coaching the Gopher football team. A guy that coached at Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois has, in his first two seasons at Minnesota, been able to convince one athletic director (Joel Maturi) to extend his contract and another (Teague) to dumb down the Gopher schedule and cough up $800 grand in the process. Usually, it takes a few championships and bowl games for a coach to wield that kind of authority. It’s clear that Kill is running the show.

Another thing that’s clear is the Minnesota program has decided that it’s a pipe dream to think the Gophers will ever be able to compete with the Ohio States, the Nebraskas, the Wisconsins (pretty much two-thirds of the Big Ten) and maybe, if it can tone down the schedule, those 6-5 seasons will happen on a regular basis and what fans the program still has will be able to enjoy the holidays in places like Memphis and El Paso.

It should also be noted, that with the new playoff system going into effect next season, many of the top college teams are juicing up their schedules because strength of schedule will become more important. No such aspirations for the Gophers.

One more thing. It doesn’t look like a 4-0 non-conference record had Gopher players “jacked up”  for the Big Ten season.

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•Question:  The Indiana Fever trimmed the Minnesota Lynx Sunday 87-78 to win the WNBA playoff title, three games to one. The Lynx, defending playoff champions, had the league’s best regular-season record and were favored to defend their title. But, the team struggled in the playoffs. Why the collapse?

-Dorr: I’m not sure it was a collapse. I had predicted that the Lynx wouldn’t repeat, simply because it’s hard to repeat unless you are a very dominant team, which I didn’t think the Lynx were. A 3-for-21 shooting night on Sunday by Seimone Augustus,  a first team All-WNBA guard, was the biggest problem in trying to win that game and get the series to 2-2 so the teams would come back to Minneapolis to play. Indiana was playing without one of its top players and the Lynx still couldn’t find the right formula to beat the Fever. Lindsay Whalen had a great game, part of which I watched, but Augustus never could get going.

-Marxhausen: The Lynx ended the regular season ranked first in points per game (86), rebounds per game (37.8) and assists per game (20.8). They were, however, ranked fifth in points allowed with 76.2 points per game whereas the Indiana Fever were ranked second in points allowed with 72.3, points per game. While that is not a monumental difference in points allowed per game, the stat shows the Fever put up a better defense and it showed during the WNBA championship series. No matter how much Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve could scream and throw her jacket, the No. 1-ranked offense was shut down by the Fever. During the series, guard Lindsay Whalen suffered a hand injury that may have affected offensive strategy, but she still performed at a high level. There isn’t one specific reason the Lynx lost the series, rather they were just outplayed in a best-of-five series by the rising Indiana Fever, who won their first ever WNBA Championship.

-Larson:  Indiana surprised me, and it looked like it surprised the Lynx, too. Minnesota looked panicky at times, especially in the final game. If Seimone Augustus makes four or five more shots (still not a great percentage) the series likely would’ve returned to Minnesota. Indiana, behind its tight defense, showed it was the better team. It was nice to see the crowds at Minnesota and Indiana fired up for their respective teams.

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•Question:  The World Series was scheduled to begin Wednesday with the Detroit Tigers traveling to  San Francisco to face the Giants, who eliminated defending-champion St. Louis Monday. Who’s your pick and why?

-Dorr: You’re asking me, the guy who picked the Reds (before I knew Johnny Cueto was hurt) and the Yankees to be in the Series? Our colleague Logan Marxhausen had a correct pick with Detroit in the AL and he must have known that ex-Twin Delmon Young would drive in the winning run in all four wins (that’s never happened before) and that all the Yankee studs would combine to hit under .200. I would imagine he’ll stick with Detroit in the Series and I’m picking Detroit, too, even with all that great pitching in San Francisco. So, there is the kiss of death for the Tigers.

-Marxhausen:  On one hand the Tigers shot right through the Yankees, pushing themselves past an American League Championship Series in four games and into the World Series. San Francisco, on the other hand, had to utilize all seven games to push the Cardinals out of contention after the Cardinals had three chances and were one game away from going to the World Series again. I don’t like that Detroit has had to sit all this time waiting for its opponent to be decided whereas San Francisco is coming off of an adrenaline rush and has to be ready to play almost right away. In the Series, I like Detroit to come out on top as long as Verlander gets two, maybe even three victories if it is pushed to a seventh game. The Giants will be able to compete every night with big name pitchers like Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito, but I like the Tigers’ offensive stars to get the better of the Giants’ pitchers in this series which will see seven games.

-Larson:  Detroit-San Francisco is a great match-up, one that will be worth tuning in. The playoffs have had many surprises thus far but there won’t be many in this World Series. Look for players who should decide games to move to the forefront. Will the layoff hurt Detroit? I don’t think so, especially with a rested Justin Verlander pitching the opener. It’s Detroit in six games.

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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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