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: The Minnesota Vikings, coming off a bye week, are at Chicago Sunday. In their final six regular-season games the Vikings face Chicago twice, Green Bay twice, St. Louis and Houston. What’s the biggest key for Minnesota down the stretch if the team wants to get into the postseason? And, what’s your pick for Sunday’s game against the Bears?
-Dorr: If Chicago has its starting quarterback Jay Cutler back from injury, it’ll be tough for the Vikings to win in Chicago. If Cutler isn’t back, the Vikings have a chance to win because Chicago would probably have a tough time generating enough offense. The biggest key for Minnesota down the stretch is for the defense to start playing better. The second-biggest key is for the passing game to generate as much offense as it did in the win over Detroit two weeks ago.
-Marxhausen: If the Vikings want to make the postseason they have a serious test the rest of the way to prove they are worthy. The challenges they are going to meet are one of the top offenses in Green Bay and two top defenses in Chicago and Houston. The road is not going to be easy. Winning divisional games will be crucial for Minnesota to break away from the pack in the playoff hunt. Splitting series with Chicago and Green Bay would hurt Minnesota’s chances because records are so good in the NFC North that they could be snubbed out of the playoffs with a winning record. Whether or not Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler comes back this week will decide how the Vikings will fare in Chicago. If the Bears load the box with eight players, then Christian Ponder needs to be accurate with his throws to receivers so the Bears will be on their heels.
-Larson: The biggest key for the Vikings the rest of the way is their defense. The defense still hasn’t convinced me it can make the key stops in the fourth quarter. Right behind is the play of quarterback Christian Ponder. If Ponder clicks, the offense clicks, especially when Ponder spreads his passes around. Jay Cutler, or not, I see a 23-20 Chicago victory Sunday.
•Question: The University of Minnesota football team lost at Nebraska 38-14 Saturday to slip to 6-5. The Gophers, who appear to be bowl bound, host a disappointing Michigan State team (5-6) Saturday to close the regular season this Saturday. What are your thoughts on the loss at Nebraska and this week’s game against Michigan State?
-Dorr: No one should be surprised that Minnesota lost at Nebraska, nor should they be surprised that the margin of victory is what it was. There just wasn’t any way the Gophers were going to win in Lincoln. Minnesota should have a chance against Michigan State on Saturday because MSU doesn’t appear to have a great offense, although its defense is very good. The Spartans need a win to be bowl eligible and that could work one of two ways – it could inspire them to play hard to earn a bowl berth, or they could be tighter than usual because they need such a win. Maybe it would be a good idea for the Gophers to give MarQueis Gray a start at quarterback in the final game of the regular season.
-Marxhausen: The Nebraska loss was very tough for the Gophers. The Huskers came out strong and didn’t look back. Quarterback Philip Nelson had a rough time in the pocket and didn’t have enough time to complete a majority of his throws. It was also hard to get the running game going, with Dante Kirkwood wrapped up by the Husker defense. The game against the Spartans is winnable. Michigan State, with a bowl bid on the line, will have something to prove to finish out its season. I don’t like Minnesota’s chances.
-Larson: Minnesota was destined to get hammered by the Cornhuskers and the latest beat down was no surprise. There was a time the Gophers could handle Nebraska but that was a long time ago and the programs are now a world apart. But, Saturday’s loss in Lincoln is history and the Gophers have a chance to put an exclamation point on their season by beating a struggling Michigan State team. Minnesota apparently has a bowl berth in hand, so maybe coach Jerry Kill will reach into his bag of tricks (we haven’t seen many yet) and try to baffle the tough Spartan defense. It’s the Spartans 27-23 in a hard-fought game.
•Question: The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team is 4-0 as it heads into a Thanksgiving clash with always-talented Duke. Coach Tubby Smith has said that this year’s team could be the most talented he’s had at Minnesota. What are your thoughts on the team and would it be a failed season if the team doesn’t get a top eight regional seed for the NCAA tourney?
-Dorr: It wouldn’t be a failed season if the team doesn’t get a seed in the top eight of a regional tournament but it would be a failed season if the Gophers don’t get to the NCAA tournament. There is more experienced talent there than there has been in recent years and the expectations should be higher. Watching the team Sunday night against Richmond, I saw some of the same things I’ve seen the last couple years, such as having trouble defending three-point shooters and the careless turnovers that a veteran team shouldn’t make. I’ve never liked the five-person substitution process that Tubby Smith uses and it didn’t work out very well Sunday. And how can a sixth-year player fall into the free throw lane and nullify a made free throw, especially when that free thrower is a good one and the chances of him making it are good? All that said, the Gophers, after another bad stretch of play in the first part of the second half that found them trailing by seven, went on a 16-2 run to take control of the game. They turned up the defense and quit making unforced turnovers. The talent to have a good season is there but I’m not sure the talent is as good as some optimistic Gopher followers think.
-Marxhausen: This young team for head coach Tubby Smith looks quite prominent already this season, but hasn’t yet played the tough competition that it will be facing if it reaches a top eight regional seed. The first benchmark for how it will compete against tough competition will be Duke. It is not whether the Gophers win or lose against Duke, even though a win would be nice, but how they execute against a high caliber team such as Duke. Making it to a top eight regional seed is going to become crucial for Smith.
-Larson: The Gophers appear to have talent at the five starting spots and a solid bench. But, can Smith put everything together? The Gophers should have 9-10 games heading into their Big Ten opener against Michigan State Dec. 31 in Williams Arena. To get a top eight regional seed Minnesota will likely have to go at least 10-8 in Big Ten play and make a good showing in the conference tournament. Barring key injuries, this team should do that.
•Question: Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers was named American League MVP last week. Cabrera, the first Triple Crown winner since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, received 22 of the 28 first-place votes. He batted .330 with 44 home runs and 139 runs-batted-in. Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout, who was earlier named AL Rookie of the Year, was second. Trout batted .326 with 30 homers and 83 RBIs and he led the majors with 129 runs scored and 49 stolen bases. Trout is also regarded as a great defensive player while Cabrera is not. Many analysts felt that because Trout was a better all-around player he should’ve been the MVP. Did the voters get it right?
-Dorr: I thought Cabrera should have been the MVP. I didn’t delve into the statistics too much but I thought Cabrera had the kind of year that you have when you’re the MVP. Trout is a wonderful player and certainly was a defensive standout and will likely be a defensive standout for years to come. But Cabrera was the more feared hitter and he led his team to the World Series. The voters got it right.
-Marxhausen: Voters who determine the MVP have been looking at the offensive side of statistics to make their decisions rather than include the defensive side. It is very tough to argue against Trout’s numbers and the value he brought to the Angels as a rookie, nonetheless. The thing I fancy about voting for Miguel Cabrera is that nobody has been able to be that dominant in all areas of batting since 1967. Batting average, home runs and RBIs are hard enough to get to be the leader of one category, but leading all three is quite the feat.
-Larson: How can you not love the play of the young Trout, who’s destined to be an all-star for many years? But, Cabrera’s stats clearly made the choice for MVP. Many of his biggest hits came down the stretch in September and I saw a stat that said Cabrera was baseball’s most productive hitter in deciding games from the seventh inning on. And, like the Terminator, he’ll be back.
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