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Vikings Miss on Momentum Builder

December 02, 2016 - (0) comments

 

The Vikings missed a storybook ending to their game last night, and diminished their chances of making the playoffs.

In the closing seconds the Vikings lined up for a two-point conversion attempt but right tackle Jeremiah Sirles was called for a false start, pushing the football back from the two-yard line to the seven. The next play quarterback Sam Bradford threw high on an attempted pass that if completed would have tied the score 17-17 with the Cowboys and sent the game into overtime.

Sam Bradford (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

Sam Bradford (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

A replay of Bradford passing showed that the Cowboys’ Cedric Thorton hit the Vikings quarterback on the helmet. A roughing penalty should have been called but the officials didn’t throw a flag.

Instead of another attempt at the two-point conversion and possible overtime, the Vikings were left with frustrations and a .500 record of 6-6 with four games remaining on their schedule. It’s been a traumatic week for the Vikings both off the field and on. Head coach Mike Zimmer followed the game from home because of emergency eye surgery Wednesday night. Zimmer’s players wanted to win for him and build momentum for a playoff run. It’s not known when the coach will return to practice.

It’s also very uncertain how the Vikings will play in their games between now and when the season ends on January 1. The good news is that the remaining teams on Minnesota’s regular season schedule all have losing records. The Jaguars (2-9), Colts (5-6), Packers (5-6) and Bears (2-9) have a cumulative record of 14 wins, 30 losses. The games with the Jaguars and Packers are away, while the Colts and Bears come to Minneapolis. The Vikings are 2-4 on the road this season, 4-2 at home.

Minnesota has now lost two more games than the NFC North Division leading Lions (7-4). The Vikings have dropped six of their last seven and, with or without Zimmer, they are scrambling to defend last year’s division title.

The Lions’ remaining games are against the Saints (5-6), Giants (8-3) and Cowboys (11-1) on the road, and at home with the Packers and Bears. The cumulative record of those clubs is 31-25. Past performances and records certainly indicate the Lions’ remaining schedule is more difficult than Minnesota’s.

But even if the Vikings somehow manage to finish in a tie with the Lions (perhaps both having 9-7 records), Detroit will have the tiebreaker for the playoffs because of two regular season wins over Minnesota.

Six teams from the NFC will qualify for the postseason, the four division champions and two wildcard entries. Right now there are seven teams with better records than the Vikings, so Zimmer’s bunch still has a chance at the playoffs but last night’s performance didn’t create momentum or optimism.

The Vikings’ defense was impressive against perhaps the best offense in the NFC. The Cowboys scored two touchdowns but one was a gift because Vikings punt returner Adam Thielen fumbled near the goal line. His miscue was part of a difficult special teams evening for the Vikings that also included anemic punting giving the Cowboys preferred field position.

As usual, the Vikings offense struggled with minimal rushing success and point production. The Vikings got three field goals from Kai Forbath but scored only one touchdown. Bradford, also as expected, took a physical beating from pass rushers and absorbed a crushing blow late in the second quarter that knocked him out of the game. The offensive line has had so many injuries the Vikings are now using overmatched personnel as they struggle to put momentum back into a season that started 5-0.

Vikings fans can hardly be cocky about the coming weeks. The lowly Bears defeated the Vikings 20-10 in Chicago earlier this season. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are always a pain-in-the-you-know-what, the Colts have a top quarterback also in Andrew Luck and the Jaguars—well, they get the Vikings on their home field a week from Sunday.

But perhaps somehow the Vikings will find a way to win games down the stretch. Hard to know what tomorrow brings. Zimmer received a reminder this week.

Worth Noting

The Twins announced this morning that James Rowson, 40, will be the team’s new hitting coach. The last three seasons Rowson has been the minor league hitting coordinator for the Yankees. He was the Cubs hitting coach from June of 2012 through 2013.

St. Thomas plays at home tomorrow (noon start) in a Division III quarterfinal national championship football game against UW-Oshkosh. In the last 12 years, St. Thomas’ 30 teams in nine different sports have qualified for NCAA tournaments and advanced to at least the national quarterfinals. Ten of the teams went on to place first or second nationally. The Tommies’ football team played in the national title game last season.

Glenn Caruso (photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas)

Glenn Caruso (photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas)

In nine seasons under football coach Glenn Caruso, 19 different players have been named All-America or Academic All-America. In the 66 previous St. Thomas football seasons, 29 other Tommies were honored. At least one other player is expected to be added to that 48 member list when All-America teams are announced this month, because senior cornerback Michael Alada leads all four NCAA levels in interceptions with 11.

Senior wide receiver Nick Waldvogel made the 2016 Division III CoSIDA Academic All-America team this week, joining his older brother Fritz who was honored in 2011. Only one other set of brothers have made Academic All-America for St. Thomas: Greg Kaiser (1997) and Andy Kaiser (2001).

If the Gophers play Washington State in the Music City Bowl, Minnesota will have another look at Mike Leach. The famous passing game authority has revived the Cougars’ program as head coach, just like he did at Texas Tech. In the 2006 Insight Bowl Leach’s Raiders trailed the Gophers 35-7 at halftime but scored 31 second half points to force overtime. The Raiders passed the Gophers dizzy and eventually won 44-41 in Glen Mason’s last game as Minnesota’s head coach.

The 8-4 Gophers will learn their bowl destination Sunday night.

The Gophers will have four players returning next year who received All-Big Ten honors this week. The four are first team kicker Emmit Carpenter, defensive tackle Steven Richardson and running back Rodney Smith, both third teamers, and linebacker Jonathan Celestin who received honorable mention.

James Johannesson, the redshirt running back from Fargo who was one of the stars of the Gophers spring game, never played a minute this season. Minnesota’s top three running backs who played this fall all return in 2017. Johannesson ran for 6,158 yards and 81 touchdowns in high school.

A sympathy card might be appropriate for former Gophers basketball coach Dan Monson. His Long Beach State team is 1-8 with losses that include road games at Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina, Washington, Wichita State and UCLA.

Tubby Smith, who succeeded Monson at Minnesota, is 6-1 in his first season at Memphis. The most notable teams on the Tigers’ schedule so far are Iowa (Memphis 100, Hawkeyes 92) and Providence (Friars won 60-51).

Anyone else notice the Timberwolves have one of the worst records in the NBA, while the pro franchise that first played in Minneapolis is the surprise of the league? With a nucleus of promising young players, the Wolves were favorites before the season to emerge as the NBA’s most improved team. Instead, it’s the Los Angeles Lakers—who most everyone thought would be awful—that are playing .500 basketball after the first month of the season. Luke Walton is turning heads in L.A. and across the NBA in his first head coaching job, while the Wolves are off to a 5-15 start.

The Wild is at Calgary tonight and is 0-1 this season against the Flames. Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk stopped 26 of 27 shots in a 1-0 loss November 5 at Xcel Energy Center.

The Gophers volleyball team has its highest NCAA Tournament seed in program history at No. 2. Minnesota is hosting opening regional rounds at the Sports Pavilion tonight and tomorrow evening. The Gophers had top 25 RPI wins against 10 teams this season and nine of the 18 players on the roster are Minnesotans.

 

Robison Sees Pro Bowls for Vikings Sub

November 30, 2016 - (0) comments

 

Vikings notes on the eve of tomorrow night’s nationally televised game with the Cowboys from U.S. Bank Stadium.

It will be interesting to see how the Vikings defense does against the Cowboys offense. Those are two acclaimed units, and part of the story tomorrow evening could be how much pass rush the Vikings can put on the Dallas offensive line and rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.

Vikings second-year pro Danielle Hunter leads the team in sacks even though he isn’t a starter. The 22-year-old Hunter, a third round draft choice in 2015, has 7.5 sacks and is tied for 15th best in the NFL. Hunter had six sacks last season in 14 games (he started one).

Hunter seems likely to one day replace 33-year-old Brian Robison who praised the former LSU player while talking with Sports Headliners. “I think the sky’s the limit for the kid. I think he really does have a bright future in this league. I see him being a perennially Pro Bowler—probably having maybe two, three, four paydays (contract adjustments).”

The Cowboys rank fourth in the NFL in total offense, averaging 407.6 yards per game. The Vikings are third in total defense, allowing 307 yards per outing.

Minnesota rates with the league’s best defending the pass, but has been more vulnerable against teams running the ball. The Vikings also haven’t seen an offensive line like the Cowboys, a unit considered among the NFL’s best.

Mike Zimmer

Mike Zimmer

“They’re really, really good. They’re the best line I’ve seen in a long time in the NFL—physical, athletic, (and) big,” said Mike Zimmer who was an assistant in the league for 20 years before coming to Minnesota as head coach in 2014.

Prescott, a surprise star and starter on the 10-1 Cowboys, has only been sacked 15 times. He has 18 touchdown passes and only two interceptions— figures that highlight the Vikings’ mission to put pressure on the 23-year-old.

Prescott has not only benefitted from a great offensive line but the team’s running game ranks second in the NFL at 157.3 yards per game. Ezekiel Elliott, another rookie, is the leading rusher in the league with 1,199 yards and has drawn praise from numerous sources including Zimmer.

“Well, he’s one of the better backs I’ve seen in quite awhile,” Zimmer said. “He’s really an all-purpose guy that catches the ball very well out of the backfield. He’s quick into the hole. Looks like he’s got great vision. …He’s good in pass protection, better than rookie backs for sure.

“One of the things, he’s an impact player on contact. He’s built…225 pounds. He’s physical. He’s a hurdler, if you try to cut him (off). He’s special.”

The Cowboys offense has a Vikings connection with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson. Linehan was a Vikings assistant from 2002-2004. Wilson played quarterback for the Vikings from 1981-1991.

In the October 17 issue of Sports Illustrated Wilson told writer Pete Thamel that Prescott had learned the Cowboys offense faster than any Dallas rookie in the last 10 years. “He has an aura and confidence about him,” Wilson said in S.I.

While the Cowboys have the NFL’s best record, the defending NFC North champion Vikings are 6-5 and have only one win in their last six games. “We need a win bad,” Vikings defensive back Captain Munnerlyn told Sports Headliners Monday. “We need a big win bad.”

What if the Vikings lose and fall further behind 7-4 division leader Detroit? “I don’t know,” Munnerlyn said. “I am not thinking like that. We need it—so I am not thinking like that at all.”

Internet reports Monday speculated the NFL will consider ending its weekly Thursday night games sometime in the future. “It would be great (if that happens),” Munnerlyn said. “You get more rest. You get more time to study your opponent. You play a little faster.”

Worth Noting

The Twins have signed catcher Jason Castro to a three-year contract worth $24.5 million. Castro will earn $8.5 million in 2017, $8 million in 2018 and $8 million in 2019.

Castro, 29, has played six seasons in the major leagues, all with the Houston Astros. In 617 games he hit .232 with 114 doubles, 62 home runs and 212 RBI.

Castro was named to the American League All-Star team in 2013. That season he hit .276 with 18 home runs and 56 RBI.

Brian Dozier, the Twins best player, said on WCCO Radio’s Sports Huddle on Sunday that the new baseball bosses for the club haven’t contacted him. There is ongoing speculation Derek Falvey and Thad Levine will trade the 29-year-old Dozier for pitching help. Dozier hit a career high 42 home runs last season.

Don’t be surprised if the Gophers pursue either a junior college quarterback, or a graduate transfer to replace Mitch Leidner. The departure of Leidner and redshirt junior Conor Rhoda leaves the Gophers with no quarterback experience on the roster.

Philip Nelson, who competed with Leidner for the Gophers starting job before leaving Minnesota three years ago, ended his 2016 season at East Carolina by throwing 16 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. Nelson threw for 2,621 yards in 10 games for his 3-9 team. Leidner had seven touchdown throws and 12 interceptions. He threw for 2,040 yards in 11 games for the 8-4 Gophers.

The Gophers will learn their bowl destination Sunday night. Minnesota won its bowl game last year against Central Michigan but is 6-12 overall in bowl games.

Rice Lake, Wisconsin native Henry Ellenson, who turned down the Gophers and many other schools to play one season at Marquette, is now in the NBA Development League. The NBA Pistons, who drafted him in the first round last June, sent him to their Grand Rapids affiliate team.

The Minnesota High School All-Star Football Game has a rich history dating back to 1945. The Minnesota Football Coaches Association is inviting all former players and coaches who participated in the game—and also all members of the MFCA Hall of Fame—to attend a 2 p.m. reception Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium. About 80 All-Star alums and Hall of Famers have already committed. A game ticket for $16 needs to be purchased in advance, with more information available by visiting Vikings.com/showcase.

Now known as the Minnesota Football Showcase, players representing the North and South will play the all-star game starting at 3 p.m. Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium. Totino-Grace’s Jeff Ferguson will coach the North and Eden Prairie’s Mike Grant the South.

The Showcase event is billed as a football celebration with attractions to include youth football clinics, marching band performances and autograph sessions with Minnesota Vikings alumni. Tickets are available in advance, with proceeds going to the MFCA and Tackle Cancer campaign. More at Vikings.com/showcase.

The defending Division III national champion St. Thomas men’s basketball team toured Microsoft earlier this month as part of multiple off-court activities while in the Seattle-Tacoma area to play two basketball games. Jon Strausburg, a St. Thomas alum and Microsoft executive, led the tour.

Seattle Seahawks general manager and St. Thomas alum John Schneider spoke to the team for an hour. The Tommies also met Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and watched practice. St. Thomas alum and Amazon executive Dan Jedda also spoke to the Tommies during the trip to Washington.

John Tauer

John Tauer

Tommies coach John Tauer said via email “it was an incredible weekend” to hear from the three St. Thomas alums. He said all three emphasized the lessons they learned from academics and athletics at St. Thomas.

The 3-1 Tommies are without three starters from last season’s national championship team but will likely make a strong run at the program’s 12th consecutive MIAC title. Forward Ryan Boll and point guard Grant Shaeffer are the returning starters.

Shaeffer quarterbacked the Eden Prairie High School football team to two state titles and has been a basketball starter on championship teams for the Tommies since his sophomore year. Tauer has his point guard playing a Lumosity game to help him make both fast and correction decisions. “I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in the country,” Tauer said.

The Tommies Nathan Stenger, a 6-3 freshman guard from Iowa City, has a 39½ inch vertical jump. The other day at practice he stood underneath a basket, jumped straight up and dunked the ball.

Condolences to friends and family of Dick Dougherty who died recently. Dougherty played hockey for the Gophers from 1951-1954 and ranks high in both career and per game scoring. A member of the M Club Hall of Fame, Dougherty played on a line with John Mayasich and Gene Campbell that coach John Mariucci once called “the greatest line ever seen in college hockey.”

Legendary singer Neil Diamond will perform at Xcel Energy Center May 24 as part of his 50th anniversary tour.

 

Pitino and Gophers Trending Up

November 28, 2016 - (0) comments

 

Hey, wake up Gophers basketball fans. Coach Richard Pitino’s 6-0 team is the surprise of the Big Ten in this just getting started season and tonight has its biggest challenge so far, playing on the road against 5-1 Florida State, an opponent ranked No. 25 last week in the Associated Press poll.

Last season’s 2-16 Big Ten record drove fans into hibernation and the Gophers have yet to attract a crowd of more than 10,000 in six home games at 14,625 seat Williams Arena. As reported in Sports Headliners earlier this month, nonstudent public season tickets were at 6,246 compared with 7,221 for the 2015-2016 season. The student season tickets total was 1,181, after a 2015-2016 total of 1,748.

But as Pitino likes to say, “That was last year’s team.” With a core of new and improved talent, the Gophers have been impressive with victories over well-known basketball schools Arkansas and St. John’s. Minnesota won those games by scores of 92-86 and 85-71, but the Gophers led both opponents by margins bigger than the final totals.

Pitino & Jordan Murphy

Pitino & Jordan Murphy

After last week’s win against Arkansas, Pitino was asked how his players feel about themselves. “They should be confident,” he said. “They’ve worked hard. They stayed humble throughout the tough offseason and they’ve just been eager to get back to proving themselves on and off the court. Very proud of these guys. They deserve success right now. They’re getting it.”

Tonight comes a prove-it game at Florida State. The Big Ten/ACC Challenge game (6 p.m. ESPNU) is the only time Pitino’s young team (one scholarship senior) plays away from Williams Arena during the nonconference schedule. The Seminoles represent a sizeable challenge both because FSU is a potential NCAA Tournament team and has a roster with big guards like 6-foot-7 Dwayne Bacon and four front court players who are 6-9 or taller including 7-1, 304-pound center Michael Ojo and 7-4 (not a typo) center Christ Koumadje. Forward Jonathan Isaac is 6-10 and a potential NBA lottery pick. He is averaging 15.3 points, second on the team to Bacon’s 18.2.

Minnesota might not be able to win if 6-10, 260-pound center Reggie Lynch can’t play because of the injured ankle that forced him to miss last Friday night’s game against Southern Illinois. Lynch leads the Big Ten in blocked shots at 3.6 per game and his interior defense has changed the Gophers’ ability to stop opponents from last season. Minnesota’s roster has length, too, but Lynch is the player who best combines height and muscle.

With or without Lynch, tonight’s game will provide a learning experience for the Gophers. If Minnesota is to become a postseason tournament team, the Gophers will have to win on the road. The poise of young players including freshmen forwards Amir Coffey and Eric Curry will face a test tonight against a quality opponent and noisy crowd. Both players have been impressive, with Coffey leading the team in scoring at 15.8 points per game, while Curry is fifth at 8.2 and third in rebounding average at 7.2. Junior guard Nate Mason, who is tied for first in Big Ten assists at 5.5 per game, will need to exert leadership tonight.

This is a “how good are we?” week for the Gophers with not only the Seminoles, but also a neutral court game coming up on Saturday in Sioux Falls against 3-3 Vanderbilt. The Commodores have been mediocre so far, losing to Butler, Bucknell and Marquette, but Vandy has a respected basketball brand and could pull off upsets in the SEC. Vandy’s notable players include Jeff Roberson (multiple positions) and 7-1 center Luke Kornet who ranked near the top nationally in shot blocking last season.

This should be the most meaningful week for the Gophers until they open the Big Ten season against Michigan State, a favorite to win the conference title. That game on December 27 is at Williams Arena and figures to bring some missing Gophers fans out of hibernation.

Worth Noting

With the Big Ten football regular season completed, it’s time for observations and conclusions. Big Ten boosters can argue their league is the best in the country with four teams ranked in the A.P. national top 10—Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State. That’s rare territory for the Big Ten and it’s not often the conference has more teams top-10 ranked than the mighty SEC (only No. 1 ranked Alabama).

Among the four Big Ten powers, Ohio State is likely to receive an invitation to the College Football Playoffs. Nine other conference teams are expected to play in bowl games, with only Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue and Rutgers not participating.

There is so much parity in college football, I doubt there is a great Big Ten team and maybe not anywhere in the nation. Alabama is the best team I have seen, but certainly could be upset in the playoffs.

The Gophers finished 8-4 overall and 5-4 in the Big Ten. It’s the second time in three years Minnesota has won eight games and also been over .500 in the Big Ten. Media and fans believe Minnesota’s records this season met minimum expectations because the team played its easiest schedule in years.

The Gophers have been competitive in just about every game the last couple years because of the team’s defensive improvement. Minnesota, though, isn’t going to take that next step toward a West Division championship without developing quality quarterback, pass catching and offensive line play.

Tracy Claeys

Tracy Claeys

Best guess is Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle will extend head coach Tracy Claeys’ contract, adding two or three years, with a small compensation increase and minimal buyout provision. Claeys has two years remaining on his present contract and is in an awkward place, assuring high school and community college recruits that he will be around for awhile.

Here are Sports Headliners’ final Big Ten power rankings: 1) Ohio State; 2) Michigan; 3) Penn State; 4) Wisconsin; 5) Iowa; 6) Nebraska; 7) Minnesota; 8) Northwestern; 9) Indiana; 10) Maryland; 11) Michigan State; 12) Illinois; 13) Purdue; 14) Rutgers.

Gophers junior defensive end Gaelin Elmore was featured this fall in Ski-U-Mah, the official magazine of Gophers athletics. Elmore had a traumatic childhood including moving at least 19 times in his first year of foster care. Elmore said in the magazine he had a five-year experience in a foster home where he was “slapped, kicked, punched, slammed down, thrown, and beaten with cable, extension cords, chains and tree branches.”

Elmore has flourished with the Gophers, becoming a starter and impressing teammates including senior defensive end Hendrick Ekpe who praised his friend’s character. “He comes from a humble beginning and a humble background,” Ekpe said. “He understands and loves the game, and shows passion on the field. At first he wasn’t…a big talker or anything. Now he’s a leader. He definitely helps you out on the plays.”

Among reasons to be optimistic about the Gophers’ defense next season is the return of high potential linebackers. Sophomore Blake Cashman and freshmen Thomas Barber, Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin are all Minnesota natives and have impressed with their play off the bench.

Starting senior linebacker Nick Rallis has noticed. “I am excited. I think physically they’re all very gifted, (and) explosive. They’ve got size.

“I think about when I first got here, I am like, man, these guys are ahead of where I was. I hope they keep working hard. If they do, they could be one of the best linebacker corps around here of all-time.”

Former Vikings tight end Joe Senser’s rehabilitation from a stroke earlier this year is featured on WCCO TV news tonight.

 

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