Following are opinions from Mille Lacs County Times sports editor Gary Larson, former Princeton Union-Eagle editor and sports columnist Luther Dorr, former Times intern Logan Marxhausen and sports fan Ben Johnson. Note: This feature is written on Monday each week.
•Question: The Minnesota Vikings, behind star running back Adrian Peterson (211 yards on 35 carries) and back-up quarterback Matt Cassel (20-33 for 243 yards and a touchdown) topped the Chicago Bears 23-20 in overtime Sunday at Mall of America Field. What are your thoughts on Minnesota’s third win of the season?
-Dorr: Peterson was the best he has been this season, a season in which he seems to have lost a step, being unable to run away from people as he did in the past. But he was great, Cassel played well, and enough things went right for the Vikings to win a game against a team that might have the best back-up quarterback in the league. You’ve got fans (at least they call themselves that) moaning and groaning because they see a win as a bad thing because it could mean a lower draft choice than what those fans want, that choice to be used for a quarterback. The Vikings, just like the Gophers, almost refuse to throw on first and second down in the red zone and that makes them predictable. With Baltimore and Cincinnati left on the road and Philadelphia and Detroit left at home, can you see another win?
-Marxhausen: The Bears-Vikings game was an amazing game on both offensive sides. Alshon Jeffery hooked up with Josh McCown for 249 yards with a touchdown on 12 catches breaking his own Bears’ franchise record for most receiving yards in a game. Matt Forte also had a stellar game on the ground for the Bears, racking up 120 yards. On the Vikings’ side, they unleashed Peterson and he ran all over the Chicago defense. Cassel was able to connect with Greg Jennings seven times for 78 yards and a touchdown. It was his third best game of the season and second against the Bears. The defenses were not stellar by any means, allowing almost 500 yards of total offense. But, a win is a win and although the Vikings want a high draft pick next year, they needed this win as their only NFC North victory so far this season.
-Larson: Peterson continues to amaze. Has anyone ever calculated the force he generates when slamming into a tackler? At the end of the season the sportswriters will compare him with other great NFL runners. Cassel had some zing on his passes and, overall was accurate. He utilized several receivers and should get the starting call this week at Baltimore. I don’t think the Vikings will win another game this season but they have been more enjoyable to watch.
-Johnson: This was one of the most bizarre finishes to a football game that I have seen. After chipping in what should have been the game-winning field goal, the Vikings were called for an offensive face mask which nullified the kick and pushed them back 15 yards. They tried another field goal and missed (rare for Blair Walsh). The reliable Robbie Gould of the Bears then was given the chance for the win at 47 yards. After his failed attempt, Walsh finally put the game away with a 34-yard field goal. Why the Bears decided to attempt their field goal on second down at 47 yards with plenty of time left is puzzling. I don’t think anyone can argue at this point that Cassel isn’t the best quarterback for the Vikings. He came in at the half and led the Vikings to 16 points giving them a chance to win the game. The NFC North is shaping up to be a rather weak division. With just two games separating the other three teams (Bears, Lions, and Packers), it should be an exciting last four weeks of the season.
•Question: The University of Minnesota football team lost at Michigan State 14-3 Saturday to finish the regular season with an 8-4 record, 4-4 in the Big Ten. The Gophers are headed for a bowl game. What did you think of Saturday’s game?
-Dorr: I said at the beginning of the season that the Gophers were obviously a faster, stronger team and that was proved, well beyond what I thought it would be. The defense has improved dramatically, although I’m not sure Michigan State has much of an offense. Still, it was a better performance than we would have guessed three months ago. The offense moved the ball well against the No. 1 defense in the country but couldn’t score. And there’s some concern because the offense hasn’t scored a touchdown for the last 10 quarters. After some good games in a row, quarterback Philip Nelson hasn’t been too accurate the past couple games. I wish the Gophers would throw more on first down. I know they want to establish a running game but teams know that and are not worried about the pass on first down, and even on second down in many cases. I’m looking forward to a better-quality bowl game and a better performance offensively.
One other college football note: Princeton’s Phillip Klaphake, who played youth football in Milaca, threw 4 TD passes, ran for 2 TDs, passed for 329 yards and ran for 144 yards in a win last Saturday over Minnesota State-Mankato, the country’s No. 1 rated Division II team. He is only the third D-2 player in history to run for more than 2,000 yards and pass for more than 10,000 in a career. In fact, he’s at about 11,000 yards passing now as the Huskies try to stay alive in the playoffs at Northwest Missouri State Saturday. Klaphake threw for 512 yards in the final game of the regular season.
-Marxhausen: Going into the game, the Gophers knew they were up against one of the country’s top defenses. The Spartans were allowing just 11.8 points per game. The Michigan State game was the same kind of performance Minnesota had against the other three Big Ten teams that beat them. The offense couldn’t produce points. The Gophers should be proud of their season.
-Larson: It was disappointing that Minnesota could not score a touchdown after generating a lot of offense, even if the Gophers were going against college football’s best defense. An 8-4 record is impressive and shows progress. Ohio State will pull out a 27-17 win in the Big Ten title game this weekend.
-Johnson: If the Gophers could have scored a touchdown after the successful fake punt late in the second quarter, it would have put the game at 7-7 going into halftime. Instead, they had to chip in a field goal. For the second straight week the Gophers struggled to get anything going offensively. Inconsistencies in the passing game have put a strain on the running game. I understand the business side of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) but I don’t like the non-traditional style of post-season play for college football. You can not have a true champion of college football when there are multiple bowl games and when teams were “picked” to be in the bowls. Therefore, it will be hard to get excited about whichever bowl the Gophers are selected for, even if they win.
•Question: While negotiations are still going on, it appears the Minnesota Twins have signed right-handed free agent pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. Nolasco, 31, was 13-11 with a 3.70 ERA last season with the Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers while Hughes, 27, was 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA with the New York Yankees last year after posting a 16-13 record in 2012. Nolasco has an 89-75 career record in eight seasons while Hughes has a 56-50 mark over seven seasons. It’s been reported Nolasco will receive $49 million over four years while Hughes will get $24 million over three years. What do you think of this stunning development?
-Dorr: I think the Twins, on the heels of a failed pitching staff in 2013, are trying to make a statement to fans that they’re willing to spend some money on pitching. And they might have one more surprise signing to prove that. Nolasco has been a decent pitcher, although his career ERA is 4.37. He was 8-3 with a 3.52 ERA in L.A. last season. He’s 31 and that’s a lot of money for four years for an older pitcher. Hughes has a lifetime ERA of 4.54 but did win 18 games in 2010 with the Yanks and 16 in 2012. He gives up a lot of homers (59 the last two years) and is labeled a fly ball pitcher. Target Field should be better for him in that respect than Yankee Stadium, where the ball flies, and in parks like Boston and Baltimore in that division where the same is true. And his performance away from Yankee Stadium has been much better than it was there. All in all, surprise moves by the Twins, moves that should immediately make the pitching staff better, although I’m a little concerned about Hughes. But those two guys should be better than the free agents signed for 2013.
-Marxhausen: The Twins are moving in the right direction. They are locking in the No. 1 and No. 2 starting pitchers for next season, boosting their struggling rotation. The Twins must feel that once they get a lock in their starting rotation the pieces will fall into place for the batting order and the bullpen. The Twins are going into their second season as shoppers for starting pitching and, while last season’s pickups sounded good, they didn’t pan out the way the organization hoped for. So, it threw some big money out in hopes of solving the problem. Hopefully this will result in a decent pitching staff. The Twins are moving in the right direction. Are they a playoff team? No, not yet. But, soon they may start making believers out of all their fans.
-Larson: I was flabbergasted by the signings! I had to find a half dozen reports about the Nolasco move before I believed it. Did the Pohlads sell the team? Is Terry Ryan still general manager? The big spending shows the Twins are concerned about attendance in 2014 and that it wants an improved team on the field when the 2014 All-Star Game comes to town. The additions should keep the Twins away from that 90-loss mark. It appears Nolasco will head the starting rotation but some experts regard him as a No. 2 guy. Regardless of how Nolasco and Hughes fare, the team has showed its fans it cares – to the tune of almost $75 million.
-Johnson: When I first heard the Twins signed Nolasco, my first thought was: who? After looking at his stat line, I realized he is a very good pickup for the Twins. He fits the Twin’s philosophy of attacking the strike zone AND he can actually strike a few guys out. Then they proceeded to sign Phil Hughes. This is another huge signing for the Twins. The Twins desperately need pitching and these two players will fit into the rotation well. I give credit to the Twin’s front office for stepping outside of their norm in signing low-risk-level contracts with older veterans and actually spending some money on middle-aged talent. The signing of these two players, given they stay healthy, just gave the Twins anywhere from 12-18 more wins in 2014. The Twins now need to look for one more starting pitcher which will almost certainly need to be a left-hander because they are now so right-handed dominant. They also need some pop in their lineup. A power hitting third baseman, D-H, or catcher would put the Twins in a great position to compete in the AL Central.
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