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 were crushed by the Chicago Bears 28-10 Sunday in Chicago. What are your thoughts on that game, and did the loss pretty much douse the Vikings’ playoff hopes?

-Dorr: No, the loss didn’t end Minnesota’s playoff hopes. I didn’t expect Minnesota to win in Chicago if quarterback Jay Cutler was back in the starting lineup. But the Vikings have to beat the Bears in Minnesota on Dec. 9, win at St. Louis the next week and hope for one win in the two games against Green Bay or the one with Houston. That’s a tall order. There were so many dropped passes in the Chicago game and the defense absolutely couldn’t make a play on third down to stop the Bears from hanging onto the ball. And Adrian Peterson, as great as he is, helped turn the game around with the first of his two lost fumbles. As I’ve said before, I don’t get too much into criticizing calling of plays. But, after Peterson had run for 38 yards on 4 carries during a drive in the third period, the Vikings had 3rd-and-2 on the Chicago 8. Two incomplete passes ended that drive. (The Vikings needed three scores and could have also tried a field goal.) If you’re going to eventually go for it on fourth down, wouldn’t two carries by Peterson be a better option? I know, the passes should have been a surprise. But two carries by Peterson, with two yards to gain, might have been a better answer. It was an overall bad performance by the Vikings.

-Marxhausen: Although the Vikings failed to execute against the league’s top defense, their playoff hopes are dwindling, but not dead. The Vikings knew they were going against tough odds in Chicago, but didn’t step up to the challenge. They centered their offense around Adrian Peterson but failed to establish the run early. If they can get him going, then play-action over-the-top plays down field open up single coverage and easier pass plays. The Bears suffered some injuries to main players like Devin Hester, Charles Tillman and Matt Forte, but had players step up to fill in. The Vikings have to travel to Green Bay then are back home to play Chicago. These divisional games are extremely important to get wins so they can get back into the race while the other division teams suffer losses. The Vikings are terrible on the road (1-4), but that needs to change with three out of their five games on the road to finish the season.

-Larson:  The Vikings continue to be vulnerable to the pass. Defensive end Jared Allen makes a lot of noise but is often stymied at the line of scrimmage. The offensive line is up and down. As is quarterback Christian Ponder. Without Percy Harvin, the cast of wide receivers is dull and ineffective. The experts say it will take at least a 9-7 record to get into the playoffs and I don’t see this Viking team netting three more victories.

A close friend in Texas studies and analyzes the NFL’s college draft. It’s his year-long hobby and he takes it very seriously and has been doing it for over 30 years. He called many times in the days leading up to the 2011 draft. His message was “the Vikings need to take quarterback Colin Kaepernick of Nevada. He does it all and has a cannon for an arm. And, they can get him in the second round.” The Vikings took Ponder in the first round and San Francisco grabbed Kaepernick with the 36th overall pick in the second round. Kaepernick ran and passed the 49ers past New Orleans Sunday 31-21 and will likely replace Alex Smith at some point as the San Francisco starter. With Ponder struggling, my friend’s observation looks pretty good.

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•Question:  Michigan State defeated Minnesota 26-10 Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, boosting its final regular-season to 6-6 while dropping the Gophers to the same mark. The Spartans, who were expected to be better than 6-6 this season but lost several close games, held Minnesota to 96 yards total offense and seven first downs. What are your thoughts on the game and the Gophers as they get ready to march to an obscure bowl game?

-Dorr: At halftime I did the math and found out that Philip Nelson, in his past three and a half games, had thrown for only 310 yards (89 yards a game), thrown only 1 touchdown pass and been intercepted 4 times, while completing only 45 percent of his passes. I thought starting Max Shortell (or even MarQueis Gray) in the second half would be a good idea. But it didn’t happen. Was Nelson’s performance against Purdue a fluke, or is he the answer? I guess we won’t know until next season, although I’m hoping he is the answer. The Gophers had a 3rd-and-1 in the first quarter and Nelson was thrown for a 5-yard loss from the shotgun formation. Minnesota refuses to put its quarterback under center in situations like that and has struggled in short-yardage situations all year. The Michigan State game? I expected Minnesota to have trouble moving the ball against the good MSU defense but I didn’t think the Spartans would handle Minnesota’s defense that well. The video overturn that went against Minnesota in the third quarter was huge, as was the tipped pass that was luckily caught by Michigan State. As far as the upcoming bowl game goes, I don’t mind if it’s obscure or not. Many other teams in the country would like to be going to a bowl game, no matter where it is or who it is against.

-Marxhausen: This is exactly what coach Jerry Kill had in mind when he said he wanted to play less competitive teams. Loading his non-conference games with weaker opponents allowed his team to accumulate enough wins in order to become bowl eligible. The Gophers’ defense isn’t terrible as it is ranked 40th overall in the NCAA in points allowed, but the offense is suffering badly with lack of execution and lack of playmakers. The quarterback situation has been a huge question mark for the entire season and hasn’t been able to separate one player from the others. Hopefully, the Gophers will be able to recruit some athletes that will be able to solve the Gophers question marks next season.

-Larson:  Against a struggling Michigan State team the Gophers: 1. Could not get inside the Spartans’ 20-yard line (red zone); 2. Could not muster 100 yards total offense; 3. Could not register more than seven first downs. 4. Could not trot out a running back who could average two yards a carry. I could add more numbers but you get the picture.

A team’s progress can be judged by how well it’s playing at the end of the season and that doesn’t have to be in terms of wins and losses. Granted, Minnesota was pulverized by a strong Nebraska team and a Michigan State team that was better than its record. But come on, there should’ve been at least a hint of progress and there wasn’t. In their final two games the Gophers couldn’t run, or stop the run, and they couldn’t pass, or stop the pass. The Gophers were the same team at season’s end that they were at the start.

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•Question:  The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team went 2-1 at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas, losing to fifth-ranked Duke 89-71 before topping 19th-ranked Memphis 84-75 and Stanford 66-63. Minnesota is 6-1 heading into a game against Florida State Tuesday, Nov. 27. What are your thoughts on Minnesota’s play in the tournament?

-Dorr: The AXS Network wasn’t available for most fans but I did see a few minutes of the third game, including the end of the game when Andre Hollins was fouled just before the buzzer. Posting a 2-1 record was acceptable. I didn’t expect the Gophers to beat Duke and they didn’t. They averaged 17 turnovers a game in the tournament and that’s a little high. They also allowed opponents to make 48 percent of their 40 three-point shots, although Duke’s unbelievable 8-for-10 performance skewed that stat a little.  That part of their game needs work. A highlight was Hollins pouring in 41 points in the win over Memphis. He looks like a star in the making. The consistent performance of Rodney Williams (averaged 6 rebounds, 14 points) was a plus and the performance of Trevor Mbakwe (12 rebounds, 19 points) in the final game was encouraging. The team has just enough talent to give Gopher fans hope for the season. Let’s see how they do at Florida State against a good team.

-Marxhausen: The talk around the team is that this is the best team that Tubby Smith has had at his disposal since he first arrived at the University of Minnesota in 2007. The loss against Duke was almost imminent because of the talent in Duke’s loaded starting lineup, but to come back and play as they did against Memphis was impressive on many standards. The nonconference games that await the Gophers are full on winnable games. They need to establish dominance in these games leading up to conference games to show they consistently can compete. The hype is going to grow around the success the Gophers have and if they play like they did in the Atlantis tournament, they will be in the top 25 in no time.

-Larson:  The victories over Memphis and Stanford were impressive, the shelling at the hands of Duke was disappointing in that the Gophers were never in the game. But, this is a familiar scenario for Minnesota. Consistency will be the key when Big Ten play starts. The play of Andre Hollins, Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe will keep Gopher fans enthused, at least for a while.

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•Question:  Legendary St. John’s University Football Coach John Gagliardi announced his retirement last week at the age of 86. He retired as college football’s all-time leader in victories with 489 over 64 seasons, 60 at SJU where he won four national titles and 27 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference crowns. What are your thoughts on Gagliardi’s career?

-Dorr: About all you can say is that it was unbelievable, in length and results. No one will coach that long and that will make it hard to break his record for victories.  He put a lot of time into his job, something I saw first-hand about 30 years ago at a basketball tournament at St. John’s. It was winter, the season was over, and there he was, watching film in an office as we walked by. I also know a couple football officials who say Gagliardi wasn’t quite the grandfatherly type on the field that we often saw away from the field. But what a career! He certainly was deserving of his induction into the college hall of fame, and of all the compliments coming his way.

-Marxhausen:  It is safe to say that no one will come close to what Gagliardi achieved over the course of his career at St. John’s University. He is nationally known and put St. John’s on the map. His style of coaching is considered insane or outrageous by most standards seen today. He told his players to call him “John” instead of “coach.” He never cut anybody from his team. There were usually a number of players who wore the same number and could only play one side of the ball. He never had tackling in his practices since 1958. He built a reputation with his players on a personal level that made everyone feel apart of the SJU football family. He will be missed by all who played for him, knew him personally or who just sat in the stands.

-Larson:  It was no accident that Gagliardi amassed those championships and victories. For most of his years at SJU he entered each season with the best roster in the MIAC. There was a reason the Johnnies were hard to beat – they had the best players! And, in Gagliardi, they had a great coach who stressed perfection. That changed in recent years as St. Thomas and Bethel began to recruit great players and the scale tipped in their favor.

While working more than a decade as sports editor at the St. Cloud Times in the 1970s, I sometimes saw a side of Gagliardi different than the one most often portrayed over the years. That said, you’ll be hard pressed to find a former Johnnie player who doesn’t remember his playing days under Gagliardi with fondness. His success and status as a legend made Clemens Stadium  at Collegeville the place to be on an autumn afternoon.

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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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