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 defeated the Green Bay Packers 37-34 Sunday at Mall of America Field. What are your thoughts on the game?
-Dorr: It was one of the better games I can remember at the Dome. But I thought the defense, which didn’t hold up its end of the bargain, was going to blow it. Minnesota led 13-0 and then the Packers scored on five of their next six possessions The offense rescued the defense on this day, however, and the Vikings got a big win. Adrian Peterson was great and Christian Ponder, who received way too much criticism this season, had a very good game. Ponder doesn’t have any All-Pro linemen in front of him and when you compare Minnesota’s receivers to Green Bay’s, there is no comparison. People get too hung up on quarterback ratings – Ponder’s was lower than that of Aaron Rodgers on Sunday and look who won. Ponder completed passes for first downs on third down five times in the first half before Rodgers finally did it halfway through the second quarter. The most important pass by Ponder came on the final drive, a 25-yarder to Michael Jenkins on 3rd-and-11. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgraves, who I thought made brilliant play calls the week before in Houston, stayed a step ahead of the Green Bay defense on Sunday. It was, all in all, a great performance by the Vikings.
-Marxhausen: The way the Vikings played Sunday is the way they need to play every week. As a team they didn’t have any turnovers, they limited their mistakes and utilized the weapons they have. Adrian Peterson, though falling short of Eric Dickerson single season rushing record, pushed the ball strong down the field and helped the ground game as well as picking up a receiving touchdown. Although Christian Ponder didn’t have many receiving yards, he connected with several different receivers on several important occasions. The Vikings had a hard time keeping Aaron Rodgers at bay, which is to be expected. The only issue I have with the game is that the Vikings accumulated 10 penalties for a total of 98 yards. They need to reduce those for next week’s game against the Packers.
-Larson: The Vikings-Packers rivalry has had some games and Sunday’s will rank near the top of that list. I envy those who were at the Dome. I did not expect a Minnesota victory and, with Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines waiting for one more opportunity, it was good that rookie kicker Blair Walsh nailed the winning field goal as time expired. The Viking defense was disappointing at times but much of that may have been due to the early injury to cornerback Antoine Winfield which didn’t go unoticed by Rodgers. Much of the focus on offense was on Adrian Peterson but quarterback Christian Ponder played his best game of the season. And, has Minnesota found a deep receiving threat to go along with Percy Harvin in rookie Jarius Wright? The Vikings seemed to catch the Packers off guard when they threw deep, which probably also caught some Minnesota fans off guard. I’m wishing I would’ve taped the game.
•Question: How do you size up this Vikings’ playoff opener Saturday at Green Bay?
-Dorr: I don’t know why they’re playing the game at night in a cold-weather city. That’s ridiculous. And it will be tough to repeat Sunday’s win while playing at Green Bay. But maybe coach Leslie Frazier, the object of some criticism here the last two years, can get his team to pull off another upset. Going from 3 wins to 10 was quite an accomplishment and Frazier deserves credit. I haven’t heard anyone point out that 4 of the team’s 6 losses came to playoff teams – Indianapolis, Washington, Seattle and Green Bay. That’s impressive, as was winning 5 of the last 7 games. The Packers are an 8-point favorite and I don’t really expect Minnesota to win. Should we hope for snow?
-Marxhausen: The Vikings showed that they can top the Packers when they leave it all out on the field. The Vikings know what they have to do to beat the Packers, but one major thing changes next week for their first-round matchup, they have to win at Lambeau Field. The Vikings have always had a tough time at Lambeau and they will be facing extraordinary odds. But the playoffs bring out the best and worst in everybody. The Vikings need the absolute best from every position. Limiting turnovers to zero was huge for the Vikings against the Packers, but that type of play needs to duplicate itself Saturday. I don’t like the Vikings’ chances, but they surprised me this past Sunday, so ruling them out would be foolish.
-Larson: Like Luther, I wonder why the game will be played at night. I suppose the TV networks had that plan in place a long time ago. Coach Leslie Frazier has his team on a roll, with four-straight victories in a must-win situation. The Vikings will need a near repeat performance of Sunday’s game, but they do have momentum on their side. But, while another Minnesota victory, especially at Green Bay, would be great, I don’t think it will happen. Saturday’s MVP will be Aaron Rodgers.
•Question: The University of Minnesota football team lost to Texas Tech 34-31 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl Friday in Houston as the Red Raiders kicked a field goal on the final play of the game. What did you think of the Gophers’ performance and was the game a step forward for coach Jerry Kill’s team?
-Dorr: For two seasons, both in private conversations and in print, I have supported the coaching efforts of Jerry Kill. And he may still be the man for the job. But I’ll never figure out why, with around seven minutes to go and the Gophers leading 31-24, MarQueis Gray was sent out to be the quarterback after Phillip Nelson had thrown two touchdown passes the second half. Gray missed two wide-open receivers, the second one with no defender even close to the receiver, and Minnesota had to punt. A lot of time could have been taken off the clock. Then the Gophers got the ball back with 5:06 to go and this time a false-start penalty kept them from a first down and a chance to take time off the clock. Texas Tech drove 82 yards to tie the game and Minnesota eventually lost. Minnesota did a lot of good things in the game, including shutting out Texas Tech for the first 28 minutes of the second half. And, with an offensive line finally healthy, the running game was good. “The kids played hard,” Kill kept repeating after the game. Trouble is, many of the long-suffering Minnesota fans are starved for a bowl win and don’t care about that. The program needs to take a step up in 2013. And let’s not have any more 3rd-and-49 situations.
-Marxhausen: The Gophers should be given a lot of credit for the effort they put in the game against the Red Raiders. They were not expected to come close and I had wrote them off a long time ago when I heard who their opponent was going to be. They proved that a rushing attack can still have a huge impact, controlling the ball for 36:18 of the game. Spreading the ball out with quarterbacks Phil Nelson, Marquies Gray and running backs Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr., kept Texas Tech guessing where the ball was going next. Kill showed that the Gophers can keep up with great offenses like Texas Tech’s, but losing the game in the last minute hurt their claim that this season was a success. The next step for the Gophers is to be able to close out games against the tough competitors they face in the Big Ten and future bowl games.
-Larson: Credit Gopher coach Jerry Kill and his staff for a great game plan – establish the run, pound away suspect Texas Tech defense, control the pace of the game and gobble up the clock. That plan worked until Minnesota veered away from it in the fourth quarter. Erratic play has characterized quarterback MarQueis Gray over his four years at Minnesota and he should not have been at quarterback in the fourth quarter. It was an entertaining game but in the end it was another loss to a good team.
•Question: Top-ranked Notre Dame (12-0) meets No. 2-ranked Alabama (11-1) in the BCS title game Monday, Jan. 7, in Miami. Alabama, the defending national champion, is a nine and one-half point favorite. Who’s your pick to win and why?
-Dorr: I’ll take Alabama to win because the oddsmakers have Alabama as the favorite. I’ve seen Alabama for only a few minutes this season and Notre Dame for only a few minutes more. I have little interest in the game and would probably have more if different teams were there.
-Marxhausen: Notre Dame has displayed a phenomenal defense all season, beating numerous ranked teams because it was able to shut down opposing offenses, but I like the rushing attack that Alabama puts up each week with T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy. A.J. McCarron has exceeded my expectations at quarterback and has done a tremendous job connecting with his Crimson Tide receivers when it counts most. My pick to win is Alabama, based on its balanced offense and tough defense.
-Larson: Notre Dame wasn’t even ranked in the top 15 when the season began, so its appearance in the national title game is a big surprise. It would have been a surprise if Alabama wasn’t in the title game. Alabama is clearly the better team but I’m predicting an Irish victory. Why? Only because Notre Dame seems to be a team of destiny, a team that comes along every 10 years or so.
•Question: Longtime St. John’s University assistant coach Gary Fasching was hired to succeed the legendary John Gagliardi as head football coach at the school. Highly-successful Eden Prairie High School coach Mike Grant, son of former Vikings coach Bud Grant, and Kurt Ramler, a former SJU quarterback who was head coach at Carleton from 2006-2011, were the other two finalists for the job. What do you think of the hiring of Fasching and who would’ve been your choice?
-Dorr: I have no basis for making a choice since I wasn’t in on the interviews. We’re told that Grant pulled out, saying he discovered during the process that he was a high school coach, not a college coach, and I guess that left it between Fasching and Ramler. And Fasching has been there a long time so they must have thought he was the man for the job. I did follow the process but have no feelings either way about who was hired.
-Marxhausen: I do like the choice of taking the assistant coach over an outsider to the program. Although Ramler and Grant are not strangers to the prestigious college football program, to hire someone inside the system is a great way to smooth the process of a change, especially replacing the winningest football coach of all-time. I believe in hiring within the system. Fasching will continue his relationship with his players and make it stronger now as head coach of the football team.
-Larson: I like the choice of Fasching. I like to see people who have done a good job move up when a position opens and Fasching is certainly familiar with the program. Grant’s decision to withdraw was surprising and one wonders if he was told he could withdraw after the choice of Fasching was made. A story in the Star Tribune indicated that some St. John’s alumni were not happy that Grant was not offered the job and felt the school should’ve done whatever it took to hire Grant. With St. Thomas now the king of MIAC football, and a lot of other sports, hiring Grant would’ve opened a huge recruiting base for St. John’s in the metro/suburban area.
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