Ask the Sportswriters

Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times  editor-sports editor Gary Larson and reporter Luther Dorr. Former Times intern Logan Marxhausen is taking this week off. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.

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•Question: The Minnesota Vikings lost their third game in a row Sunday, falling to the Seattle Seahawks 30-20 in Seattle. What are your thoughts on the game? Is next week’s game at home against the Detroit Lions a “must win” game for the Vikings if they want to gain the playoffs? And, with a rugged schedule remaining, does the team really have a shot at a playoff berth?

-Dorr: The defense has been struggling big time and it continued Sunday. In the last four games, one of them a win over a terrible Arizona team, the Vikings have given up an average of 30 points and 395 yards a game. Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III torched the Viking defense and the Redskins have lost three games in a row since then so, as good as he is, he hasn’t done much since he played against a Viking defense that can’t seem to stop the opposition. I would say the Detroit game is a “must win” game if the Vikings are to have a shot at the playoffs. They get a bye week after that to lick their wounds and then play Chicago twice in three weeks, with Green Bay in between, before playing St. Louis and then the very good Houston and Green Bay teams.  Considering that schedule, I’d say it’s a long shot for the Vikings to make the playoffs unless they have a dramatic turnaround.

-Larson:  After six games, the Vikings were the NFL’s “surprise team.” They’ve lost that tag and now appear to be moving to the so-so season most predicted. Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson joined his first-year cohorts, Andrew Luck in Indianapolis and Robert Griffin III in Washington, is picking apart the Viking defense, which has been a lot more “show” than effective the past three weeks. And, the Vikings still lack a consistent passing attack. You know Detroit is going to stack its defense to try to stop Adrian Peterson. Look for the Lions to avenge their earlier loss to the Vikings. And, as Luther points out, things get tougher following the team’s bye week. It’s hard to look at the remaining schedule and see more than a 7-9 finish.

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•Question:  Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder had another poor game, completing 11 of 22 passes for 63 yards with one interception. Is it time to turn the offense over to Joe Webb?

-Dorr: I don’t think Webb will get a start, nor do I think he should, based on what I saw in the preseason games. There’s no doubt Ponder hasn’t played as well lately but there are other factors. He’s been running for his life the last few games and, if you look at things objectively, there isn’t much in the way of talent in the receiving corps, although Ponder and his receivers were certainly performing better during the team’s good start. The Vikings were too cheap to re-sign Seattle wide receiver Sidney Rice a couple years ago and he’d look good in a Minnesota uniform right now. It’s an unusual situation with Ponder. After the good start people were hailing him  as a good young quarterback, now some are saying he should be sitting on the bench.

-Larson:  Ponder’s immediate future depends on how the Vikings look at the current season. Remember, most felt this would be a rebuilding season, with the team shaping its roster over the next couple of seasons for its debut in a new stadium in 2016. If rebuilding is still the plan, keep Ponder at quarterback. He’s played well at times and it’s way too early to bench him and perhaps crush his confidence.

Now, if the team is thinking it has a shot at the playoffs, it should also keep Ponder in the lineup. He’s the team’s best option. It’s too bad Minnesota didn’t retain veteran Sage Rosenfels. He would’ve been a good option when Ponder was struggling the past three weeks.

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•Question:  What are your thoughts on the University of Minnesota’s 35-13 loss to Michigan in the Little Brown Jug game Saturday at Minnesota, which dropped the Gophers to 1-4 in the Big Ten and 5-4 overall? With away games at Illinois and Nebraska and the final regular season game against Michigan State ahead, Minnesota needs one more victory to become “bowl eligible.” Will it get that win Saturday at Illinois, which is 2-7?

-Dorr: First things first: From what I heard (didn’t see the Illinois blowout loss to Ohio State because I was at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday), Minnesota should beat Illinois. The Illini were uninterested in playing for their coach, one local media member said, in the loss to the Buckeyes. I’ll bet they will be interested Saturday because they will perceive it as a chance to get a win. But Minnesota should win that game and become eligible for a minor bowl game. Chances are the Gophers won’t beat Nebraska or Michigan State. A win Saturday makes it a decent second season for Kill. Most of the know-it-alls in the press box last Saturday thought the fake punt by the Gophers was a horrible call, given that it was 4th-and-17 and that it failed. But, after listening to Coach Kill on Sunday, I changed my mind a bit. He said the pass was late in getting to Philip Nelson, who was wide open, and that the play should have worked. The Gophers had a lot of good chances early to take command but the game turned on three plays in the second quarter. The first, of course, was the 3rd-and-17 pass for a TD that tied the game. That just shouldn’t have happened, a Gopher defensive back losing contain. The ensuing kickoff was run back to the Minnesota 45 but a roughing penalty after the return moved it back to the 30. And on a 2nd-and-4 from the 36, a false-start penalty derailed that drive. I wish the Gophers would run more play-action passes on first down and quit running the quarterback so much.

-Larson:  The loss to Michigan certainly wasn’t surprising. The Wolverines own the Little Brown Jug series and now have won 53 of the last 64 games for a 68-22 edge. The Gophers looked better than they did in last year’s 58-0 drubbing. The 35-13 margin might have been closer if Minnesota had managed to convert more than four of 14 third downs (Michigan converted seven of 12). I didn’t like the fake field goal play but a 37-yard field goal probably isn’t a sure thing. Coach Kill knew his team was over-matched and had the play worked it might have evened things out, at least for a while. Look for Minnesota to face a fired up Illinois team Saturday, with Illinois pulling out a 27-23 victory.

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•Question:  The Minnesota Timberwolves, without the injured Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, went 2-1 in their first three games. What are your thoughts on those games and what is your projection for the team’s season?

-Dorr: Because I was listening to Princeton trounce Hermantown 42-0 in the section final Friday, I saw only the last few minutes of the win over Sacramento. Then came a whipping in Toronto Sunday night, not a minute of which I watched. And Monday night I saw the fourth quarter as the Wolves rallied from a 22-point deficit in the third quarter to win by 11, with a 32-10 edge in the final period as they hit 5 of their last 8 three-point tries. The Brooklyn Nets are a pretty good team, by all reports, but the Minnesota bench poured in 41 points as second-stringers keyed the fourth-quarter run. The bench also played well in the win over Sacramento, showing that the talent level on the team is much higher than last year, with without Kevin Love or Ricky Rubio. Tell the truth: Had you ever heard of Dante Cunningham? I hadn’t and he had 11 points and 12 rebounds off the bench in Brooklyn. If the team can put up a decent record without Love and Rubio, it should be a good season when they return, maybe even a playoff season. Or are we judging too much by only three games?

-Larson:  I was excited watching the victory over Sacramento, then deflated watching an all-to-familiar performance in the loss to Toronto. My thumb was on the channel-changer when Minnesota fell behind by 22 Monday night in Brooklyn but I didn’t quite pull the trigger. I’m glad I didn’t. As Luther points out, the Timberwolves bench appears much improved. And, those players are showing more passion and hustle than last year’s reserves. The team has displayed good scoring balance, with seven players scoring nine or more points Monday. The hustle of guard JJ Barea and forward Andrei Kirilenko was fun to watch. Luther also points out that it’s just three games into the season. Still, Minnesota appears talented enough to hover around .500 until Love and Rubio return. After that, the team should be in the hunt for a playoff spot.

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•Question:  The Minnesota Twins put longtime infielder Alexi Casilla on waivers last week, where he was claimed by the Baltimore Orioles. The team also said it’s looking for two veteran pitchers to lead its starting rotation. Was it time to part ways with Casilla? What are the chances the team picks up two quality starting pitchers?

-Dorr: I guess the Twins didn’t want to give Casilla the raise he likely would have gotten in arbitration. I would have kept him. Of course, I would have kept J.J. Hardy, too, and now, besides hitting 52 homers the past two years, Hardy is the American League’s Gold Glove shortstop. Wouldn’t he look good in a Minnesota uniform? It’s hard to figure why Baltimore, a team that had a nice playoff run, would think Casilla can play for them, while the Twins think he can’t. Two good starting pitchers? The only way that’s likely to happen is by trading away a big contract like Justin Morneau’s so that the money is available. Would you want to come to Minnesota to pitch for a team that has struggled mightily the past two years?

-Larson:  Casilla received too much playing time which resulted in way too many at-bats. He has the same strike zone as former Twin Carlos Gomez – anything within two feet of the end of the bat is a good pitch to hit. That said, Casilla will likely “find himself” in Baltimore and bat .300. A lot of teams are looking for solid starting pitchers and many of those teams are more attractive destinations than Minnesota. Unless the Twins switch gears and boost their planned payroll, it’s not too likely we’ll be seeing any talented starting pitchers arriving over the winter.

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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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