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. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.

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•Question:  The Minnesota Vikings scored their first victory of the season, topping the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-27 Sunday in London. What are your thoughts on the game?

-Dorr: My initial thought was that it was nice to be playing one of the worst teams in the NFL. Pittsburgh has slipped mightily and the Vikings, even though their defense gave up 27 points and 434 yards, were able to take advantage of a bad team. Secondly, for the first time in four games, Adrian Peterson didn’t lose a fumble and he finally had a good game, something he hadn’t done until now. And when Matt Cassel did fumble and a Steeler fell on it, the ball somehow squirted out and the Vikings recovered, even getting a first down out of the deal. Back-up quarterback Cassel played pretty well and on Monday a non-Christian Ponder fan told me that Ponder can’t cut it because he had only three 300-yard games last year, in this era of a pass-happy NFL. I checked Sunday’s games and found that only five of 13 winning quarterbacks had more than 300 yards. What that means, I don’t know. Possibly the biggest thing on Sunday was that the defense didn’t cave in (entirely) at the end of the game.

-Marxhausen: For having two winless teams go overseas, the Steelers and Vikings put on an offensive show that London will not forget for some time. The Vikings put their faith in back-up quarterback Matt Cassel and he did exactly what the Vikings were waiting for all season. Cassel looked comfortable in the pocket and was able to hit his receivers in stride. Greg Jennings finally caught his first touchdown catch as a Viking and looks to have a connection with Cassel. Cassel did have a modest game because Adrian Peterson was finally able to get through some holes and had a two nice touchdown runs. All in all, it was a good balance between running and passing and the Vikings pulled out a much-needed victory.

-Larson:  I knew Pittsburgh wasn’t very good and Sunday’s game was evidence of that. Steelers co-founder and former owner Art Rooney must be rolling over in his grave as a franchise that’s won six Super Bowls is now sinking fast.

Matt Cassel had a good game in place of the injured Christian Ponder, the offensive line played well and provided running room for Andrian Peterson, Greg Jennings looked like he did when he played for the Packers and the defense even made some plays. We’ll know more about the Vikings following their games at home against Carolina and the New York Giants after this week’s bye.

-Johnson: What a difference a change at quarterback can make in a team’s confidence.  The stats do not lie for Cassel when compared to Ponder.  Cassel threw for two touchdowns, was only sacked once, didn’t turn the ball over, and came up with some big plays.  All of which Ponder cannot claim.  Perhaps the biggest advantage of a confident quarterback who can successfully put the ball in the air is how it opens up the running game for Adrian Peterson.  Peterson had his best game of the season, rushing for 140 yards and a pair of touchdowns.  Although the defense allowed Pittsburgh back into the game at the end of the fourth quarter, the win can be instrumental in turning the season around.  The secondary of the Vikings needs work.  If the Vikings can address this area and stick with Cassel, they may go from a 3-13 / 4-14 team to a 7-9 / 8-8 team.

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•Question:  After four non-conference victories, the University of Minnesota football team was handled by Iowa 23-7 Saturday in its Big Ten Conference opener at TCF Bank Stadium. What are your thoughts on that game?

-Dorr: It was obvious after the first series or two for each team that Iowa was winning the battle at the line, both on offense and defense. The Gophers couldn’t rush the Iowa passer, nor could the Minnesota offensive line open a hole for any of the backs, no matter what kind of play was run. I thought Minnesota should have gone to more of a passing game well before the first half was over but I don’t know if that would have made any difference. Iowa had the better team. If there was a key play in that game it came in the second quarter after the Iowa kicker clanked a field goal try off the upright and Iowa led only 10-0. Minnesota drove from its 21 to 3rd-and-1 (a short 1) on the Iowa 49. For some reason, Minnesota called a timeout, and then, even worse, a false start penalty was called, after all that planning during the timeout, and that drive failed. Two plays later a 74-yard TD pass gave Iowa all it needed.  If there was a key series, it came in the first quarter, Iowa leading only 3-0, and the Gophers with a first down on the Iowa 31. Two running plays gained three yards, a quarterback sack followed and then two five-yard  penalties forced a punt instead of a field goal try. I was at the game and it wasn’t much of a game.

-Marxhausen: This loss was not what Gopher fans wanted to see. Iowa was one of those teams that Minneosta could have beat to bring its record closer to a bowl berth. Quarterback Philip Nelson returned after sitting out last week against San Jose State and was ineffective. The Gophers, a run-first team, were unable to establish a ground game to get their offense going. Iowa’s running game was dominant from the beginning. Minnesota was simply outplayed. The Gophers didn’t even look like they wanted to be there or their minds were elsewhere. They will have to come out with a much stronger attitude if they plan on putting up a decent game against Michigan next week.

-Larson:  The visiting Hawkeyes appeared to be ready to play while the home Gophers did not and Iowa took charge right away. After 18-20 running plays are stopped dead in their tracks, it’s time to scrap the game plan and try something else. Minnesota didn’t. Does quarterback Mitch Leidner throw the football better than Philip Nelson? I don’t know. Many think he doesn’t. But, Leidner should’ve been put into the game at the start of the second half. Maybe he could’ve provided a spark, either with his  arm or his legs. I don’t think Minnesota can stay within 30 points of Michigan this week.

-Johnson: I was not impressed with the play-calling in Saturday’s game against Iowa.  I understand Minnesota is a running team but when you are getting stuffed at the line play after play and you have some success passing, why not pass more?  If nothing else run screens and short passes to avoid interceptions.  I have never been a fan of running the option and Saturday’s game is an example why.  Defending it is simple: defensive ends keep wide for containment and linebackers hit the quarterback.  Hopefully the Gophers come to play Saturday in Michigan because the 19th ranked Wolverines surely will.

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•Question:  Here’s a question on quarterbacks. Matt Cassel, taking over for injured Christian Ponder, had a big game in the Vikings’ win over Pittsburgh while Philip Nelson, returning to the starting spot after sitting out with an injury the week before against San Jose State, did not play well in the Gophers’ loss to Iowa. 1. If Ponder is ready to play against Carolina at home Oct. 13, who should coach Leslie Frazier start? 2. Noting that Mitch Leidner played a big role in Minnesota’s victory over San Jose State Sept. 21, who should coach Jerry Kill go with when Minnesota travels to Michigan Saturday?

-Dorr: Let’s not compare playing San Jose State and playing Iowa. The teams are not even close. Many quarterbacks could have had a good game against San Jose State, a team that got smoked again last week. Leidner, they say, is not as good a passer as Nelson. And no one – Leidner or Nelson or the running backs – could have run well against an Iowa team that absolutely handled the Minnesota offensive line. I’m not a fan of musical quarterbacks. Kill should go with the quarterback he thinks gives him the best chance to win. I don’t see their practices. Same with Frazier- he should start the one he thinks is the best for that game. I don’t get to see their practices either.

-Marxhausen: 1. Cassel is coming off a very productive game against Pittsburgh. He looked poised in the pocket and threw the ball comfortably. Ponder has not been able to get much going this season. You could argue that their production is the same concerning passing yards, but concerning mistakes, Cassel has the upper hand, which led to the first victory of the season. Coach Leslie Frazier will be comfortable making a decision after two weeks of practice, but I feel you have to go with the hot hand in Cassel. 2. Philip Nelson did not have a good game against Iowa because he wasn’t allowed to use his feet effectively. Iowa knocked him down and did not let him gain anything on the ground as well as stopping the other running backs Minnesota threw at them. There is a huge difference between Iowa and San Jose State and I say you go with experience (Nelson)over the hot hand (Leidner against San Jose State) in this situation because the Gophers are traveling to the “Big House”  Saturday after Michigan had a week off to prepare.

-Larson:  Frazier should stay with Cassel after the bye week. It won’t matter who the Gopher quarterback is at Michigan – the Gophers are in for a long afternoon. I’d go with Leidner.

-Johnson: The quarterback on a football team is like the pitcher on a baseball team.  They lead the ship.  The ball is in their hands and the game begins with them.  You must have confidence in your quarterback and they must have confidence in themselves. Ponder has lost whatever confidence he had.  He is reluctant to throw the ball down field and he panics in the pocket.  He turns the ball over and his team doesn’t believe in him.  It is blatantly obvious that the Vikings have a better chance to win with Cassel. Cassel will more than likely not lead the Vikings to the playoffs and will surely make mistakes, but he has a good arm and takes chances which I think will pay off.  In the Gopher case, I would start Nelson.  By starting him you are showing confidence in him, which he may carry onto the field.  He has shown he can be a leader and win football games.  I think Leidner should still see some action this weekend because he can definitely be used as a weapon against Michigan.

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•Question:  The Major League Baseball playoffs begin this week. What would your “dream” match-up be for the World Series? (Note: The sportswriters will review the 2013 Minnesota Twins 66-96 season next week.)

-Dorr: The best for me would be Cleveland against Pittsburgh. That would be the most unlikely match-up of the teams that have made the playoffs, be it as a wild card or a division winner. No team in the history of baseball has won 10 straight games at the end of the season, as Cleveland did, to earn a playoff spot (we should remember that there weren’t wild cards until a few years ago). And Pittsburgh endured a couple decades of not making it to the playoffs. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the Indians and the Pirates to make it but those are the teams for which I’ll be cheering. One baseball note that will be old news next week: former Twin Michael Cuddyer winning the NL batting title at .331, despite a lifetime batting average of around .280. No one expected that. And a right-handed batter winning the title is also unusual. One of the morning guys on the former KSTP radio station mentioned Monday that Cuddyer’s .331 was nothing special, noting that Miguel Cabrera won in the AL at .348. He doesn’t know, I guess, that means that Cabrera got 1.7 more hits every 100 at-bats than Cuddyer this season. Cuddyer deserves credit. And wouldn’t he have looked good in a Minnesota Twins uniform?

-Marxhausen:  Out of personal interests, I would like to see Oakland against Pittsburgh. I had players from both teams in fantasy baseball this season and I have really enjoyed watching these two teams. Bartolo Colon, at age 40, had an impressive year with an 18-6 record for Cleveland. Starting pitcher A.J. Griffin was fun to watch, ending the season with 171 strikeouts and closer Grant Balfour with 38 saves. Pittsburgh has great players to watch as well in Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte. Former Twin Francisco Liriano has found much success with the club and posted a 16-8 record. I would just like to see these two teams vie for the World Series because they are not the usual suspects when October comes around.

-Larson:  I’ll go with the best teams in their respective leagues: Boston in the American League and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League. Boston bounced back from a terrible 2012 season (69-93) while the Dodgers recovered from a poor start (31-42 on June 21) and surged to the NL West Division title, going 46-10 over a two-month span after June 21. However, there are several good potential match-ups that would make for an interesting World Series.

-Johnson: I am a big fan of Indians manager Terry Francona.  I think what he has done in his first year with the Indians is pretty remarkable.  He knows how to win.  He proved that while managing Boston and now with Cleveland.  Without any perennial all-stars or big name free agent signings (unless you consider Michael Bourn or Nick Swisher big names), the Indians came within one game of Detroit at the conclusion of the season.  I also enjoyed watching the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate their first winning season in over 20 years.  With former Twins Justin Morneau and Fransisco Liriano, I will look for the Pirates to meet the Indians in the World Series.  Who wins?  I don’t care as long is the series goes six or seven games.

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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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