Ask the Sportswriters

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

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•Question:  The Minnesota Vikings lost their season opener at Detroit 34-24 Sunday at Detroit. What are your thought on the team’s play overall and, in particular quarterback Christian Ponder, who was highly criticized by fans after throwing three interceptions?

-Dorr: Two things stood out in the loss – how porous the defensive line was (along with no rush on the passer) and the fact that Adrian Peterson was the second-best back on the field. The play of wide receiver Jerome Simpson (7 catches for 140 yards), after a terrible 2012 season, gives some hope for Viking fans.  The last time I checked, Ponder wasn’t playing defense, a defense that gave up 469 yards and got shoved all over the field.  His interception at the end was meaningless and on one other one his arm was hit as he was trying to throw the ball out of bounds. He had a so-so game and so did the whole team, including offensive coordinator Bill Musgraves. It was third-and-one in the third quarter, you have Adrian Peterson, and Musgraves had Ponder roll out to his left to throw back against the grain. The play failed and so did that drive. It’s one game and it’s not time to panic yet, although that may come in a couple weeks. Some of the other quarterbacks who lost Sunday are the Giants’ Eli Manning, the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger (9 points), Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (17 points), Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. On Monday RG3 of Washington threw two interceptions as his team fell behind 33-7 and the Redskins went 45 minutes without scoring on offense in a loss to, of all teams, the Eagles. And Phillip Rivers of San Diego threw an interception that led to his team blowing a 21-point lead and losing to Houston. The highlight of the opening week for me was the seven touchdown passes by Peyton Manning. It reminded me of sitting at Met Stadium in September 1969 when weak-armed Joe Kapp threw seven TD passes for the Vikes against Baltimore.  Things were so bad for the Colts that day that Gene Washington, Minnesota’s best receiver, lined up wide late in the game and no one went out to cover him. He started waving to Kapp and Kapp took the snap, straightened up, and lobbed the ball to Washington who stepped, uncovered, into the end zone for this third TD of the day.

-Larson:  The pre-season was a washout for the Vikings, whose starters saw little time on the field. Coach Leslie Frazier apparently “knew what he had.”  Sunday in Detroit that proved to be not much. The defense couldn’t stop Detroit and the offense looked sluggish, especially the line, which was supposed to be a team strength. Ponder didn’t have a good game, but he didn’t receive much help. Don’t look for the Vikings to bounce back Sunday in Chicago. It’s Chicago 27, Minnesota 23.

-Johnson: The Vikings looked awful Sunday.  I thought they would have a better team in 2013 than 2012 but after Sunday I’m not so sure.  To his credit, two of Christian Ponder’s three interceptions were not really his fault because the ball was either in and out of the receiver’s hands or it was tipped up to the defender.  Ponder did however, have a poor game.  While completing just 18 passes on 28 attempts, he was sacked three times and turned the ball over three more.  With as many defenders keyed in on Adrian Peterson as the Lions did, the passing game should have been there all day.  Peterson was met by two or three defenders behind the line of scrimmage on almost every carry he had.  Offensive coordinator Bill Musgraves should have seen this and started throwing quick slants and tight end dump passes to keep the linebackers honest.  Instead, he continued to give it to Peterson up the middle or had Ponder drop back while under pressure.  The bad news is it will not get any easier going to Soldier Field next week in Chicago.

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•Question:  What game result surprised you the most on the opening week of the NFL season?

-Dorr: Everybody has been on the Cincinnati bandwagon so I guess the most surprising loss was the 24-21 win by Chicago at home against the Bengals. And I guess that means the Bears won’t be a pushover in 2013. I thought Atlanta would beat the Saints, even though it was at New Orleans, so that loss was a bit of a surprise. There were some indications that Pittsburgh might be on a downward trend and that’s apparently the case, the Steelers losing at home to Tennessee in what was another surprise. Along with Indianapolis and New England struggling to win against lesser opponents, it was somewhat of a surprising day. But the NFL will be full or surprises this year it appears.

-Larson:  Pittsburgh’s loss at home to Tennessee was the most surprising. Apparently, the Steelers are in decline after so many years as a playoff contender.

-Johnson: After watching five NFL games over the weekend, I witnessed more sloppy football than I did the entire first half of 2012.  Isn’t the idea of pre-season games to get ready for the season?  What is the point of them if none of the starters play in them in preparation of the season?  The biggest surprise for me was the Philadelphia Eagles beating the Washington Redskins Monday night.  New head coach Chip Kelly’s offense looks impressive and quarterback Michael Vick was very smart with the football.  If he can stay healthy the Eagles could be a darkhorse playoff team with a deadly offense.

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•Question:  The University of Minnesota football team clubbed New Mexico State 44-21 Saturday at New Mexico State to move to a 2-0 record. What are your thoughts on that game?

-Dorr: Haven’t even seen any highlights so it’s hard to assess a win against a team rated to be one of the worst in the country. Getting two touchdowns on returns (punt and fumble), after three returns the week before, leads one to believe that either the opponents are not very good or the Gophers have made strides in that area, especially in the area of speed. It sounds as though Western Illinois won’t provide much opposition, either, so it’ll be a week or two before we know how good the Gophers are. At least they are handily beating teams they should beat handily.

-Larson:  The Gophers are 2-0 and need just four more wins to become “bowl eligible.” Victory No. 3 should come Saturday when Minnesota hosts Western Illinois, which is 1-1 after beating Hampton University (Va.) in its opener 42-9 before losing to Southern Illinois 35-0 last week. Western Illinois lost its last six games in 2012. The Gophers should pick up their fourth win when they host San Jose State Sept. 21. Then, the Big Ten season begins with a home date against Iowa Sept. 28. The Gophers have rolled over two lesser opponents which was what the schedule was intended to do. And, it’s far better to win these games than suffer an embarrassing loss.

-Johnson: Until the Gophers get into conference play, it is hard to gauge what kind of team they are.  In Saturday’s game the Gophers did play great defense and really got the ball moving offensively in the second quarter and thereafter.

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•Question:  The Minnesota Twins are 61-80 after losing a three-game series to Toronto over the weekend at Target. Field.  The team needs to win 12 of its remaining 21 games to avoid a third-straight 90-loss season. What are their chances?

-Dorr: Because they are a horrible team at home, and because Oakland and Tampa Bay – both good teams – are the next opponents, the chances don’t appear very good. Losing 10 in a row at home is almost unbelievable. Jared Burton has an acceptable ERA, 3.96, but is 2-9 and continually blows games in the eighth inning. And the race for second place on the team in RBIs between Brian Dozier (60) and Joe Mauer (only 47) hasn’t developed because Mauer has been out for three weeks. I think Dozier would have won anyway. The win Monday against the Angels was a nice one. The Twins have won series against the Angels, Seattle, Texas and Houston in that division, with six games left against Oakland.

-Larson:  There’s no chance the Twins won’t hit the 90-loss mark. And, really, is there any difference between 89 losses or 90 losses? For the third year in a row the Twins are a lousy team, one of the worst in baseball.

-Johnson: Before the season, I had predicted 100 losses for the Twins.  They obviously will not hit that mark but I am still predicting more than 90 losses.  Seventeen of the remaining games are against winning teams. With a team ERA of 4.31, which is 29th in the majors, the starting rotation has been in shambles the entire season.  The team batting average is .242, which is 25th in the majors, and the lineup looks to be more uncertain than it has been all season.  I really hope general manager Terry Ryan decides to dig into the team’s pockets this offseason and brings in some proven talent both on the mound and in the batters box.

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Do you have an opinion on this week’s question? 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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