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Matchup Issue Looms for Vikings

January 05, 2020 - (0) comments

 

The Vikings certainly have reason to be concerned about their pass defense entering today’s playoff game at New Orleans against the high scoring Saints. Minnesota’s secondary was a worry during the regular season, and then Friday it was announced cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes won’t play against the Saints.

Even before that announcement, former Vikings linebacker and front office executive Scott Studwell told Sports Headliners of his concern about containing legendary Saints quarterback Drew Brees and wide receiver Michael Thomas who led the NFL in receptions with 149, and receiving yards, 1,725.

“Thomas has had a phenomenal year and Brees is obviously a Hall of Fame quarterback, that’s a first ballot guy,” Studwell said. “They’ve been putting up a lot of points the last five or six weeks (averaging 36.6 points in the last six games). …

“I don’t know if we have a corner on the roster, to be honest with you, that can matchup with that kid (the 26-year-old Thomas). I am not quite sure what the (Vikings) coaching staff is going to do but they’re going to have somebody over the top (of the defense). He’s going to get his catches but you just can’t let him beat you.”

Vikings veteran Xavier Rhodes is paid to be a shutdown cornerback but has been inconsistent this season and last. He was asked if he will be assigned a lot to covering the aggressive Thomas. “I don’t know if I will be on him,” he said. “It’d be great if I am.”

Is Rhodes forthcoming with that answer? “I really don’t know,” he said. “I will find out when you find out (when game begins).”

Studwell refers to the Vikings as a “contender” in the mix of six NFC teams trying to earn their way to Miami and playing in next month’s Super Bowl. “These guys are good enough to beat anybody in the league but they also have to play well,” he said.

As the NFC’s No. 3 seed, the Saints are a favorite of odds-makers to play in the Super Bowl. The AFC’s No. 1 seed Baltimore Ravens are favored to win the big game.

Worth Noting

Kirk Cousins

Studwell talking about quarterback Kirk Cousins who finished the regular season with a 107.4 passer rating, the second highest in franchise history: “I think Cousins had a hell of a year. He started out a little slow and didn’t end real well…two weeks ago (against Green Bay).”

Since 2009, only the New England Patriots (135) have won more regular season games than the Saints, 113. The Saints’ Sean Payton and Drew Brees are the second winningest head coach-starting quarterback combo of all-time in the NFL. Their 126 wins are exceeded only by the Patriots’ Bill BelichickTom Brady twosome with 220 wins.

Vikings offensive alumni with the Saints: Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, center Nick Easton, and running back Latavius Murray are second-teamers, while fullback Zach Line, who has been a starter, is out today because of a knee injury.

Marcus Sherels, the 32-year-old cornerback the Vikings added to the roster late last week, told Sports Headliners when his NFL career ends he plans to attend law school. He prefers admission to a school in Minnesota and wants to focus on intellectual property law.

As a No. 6 seed in the NFC playoffs, the Vikings aren’t eligible to host any home games and that costs the franchise an estimated $3 million to $4 million, a sports industry source told Sports Headliners.

D1ticker.com points out coach P.J. Fleck receives a $50,000 bonus for Minnesota’s Outback Bowl win, per his contract.

Eric Musselman, the first-year Arkansas basketball coach who was rumored to be interested in the Gopher job while at Nevada, is off to a 12-1 start with the Razorbacks including a win at Indiana.

The Gophers, 1-2 in Big Ten games and at home tonight against Northwestern, might have won Thursday’s double overtime matchup with Purdue if Minnesota’s Marcus Carr, one of the conference’s best point guards, had adhered to fundamental basketball and passed out of double teams rather than trying to dribble through them.

Sammy Presthus, the grandson of former Gopher basketball captain Paul Presthus, is a sophomore starting point guard for Edina. He has been on both the basketball and soccer varsities since his freshman year.

The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that football had a 9.6 percent drop in participation comparing school years 2008-2009 to 2018-2019. Boys cross country participation was up 16.4 and track & field 8.5. With over 1 million participants, football had far more participants than any other sport.

 

Outback Win “Big Moment” for U Program

January 02, 2020 - (0) comments

 

I have watched each of the 21 bowl games in University of Minnesota football history. The two most significant are the 1962 Rose Bowl and yesterday’s Outback Bowl.

In January of 1962 the Gophers returned to the Rose Bowl after losing the year before to Washington, 17-7. In the 1961 Rose Bowl Minnesota played a stagnant first half and was outscored 17-0 by the Huskies. Coach Murray Warmath vowed to change things upon the return to Pasadena, including having the Gophers stay in a monastery, rather than a posh southern California hotel.

The result of shaking things up? A 21-3 dominating win over UCLA that left Minnesota ranked No. 6 in the two final wire service polls. The victory was significant for more than revenge. It demonstrated the Gophers, who won Big Ten and national titles the previous season, were still a national power and would be again in 1962 when they came within a negligent referee’s penalty of winning the conference title and earning a third straight Rose Bowl invitation.

The significance of Minnesota’s authoritative 31-24 win over Auburn yesterday? It offers more compelling evidence that head coach P.J. Fleck, his staff, and players, have turned the program from decades of failure and mediocrity to high level success.

In the Outback Bowl the 10-2 Gophers were about a touchdown underdog against a 9-3 Auburn team that had competed with some of the nation’s best teams, and boasted a win over powerhouse Alabama and a narrow loss to No. 1 ranked LSU. Before the game Minnesota fans were more concerned about not seeing their favorites get embarrassed, than winning the Outback Bowl.

Tanner Morgan

Quarterback Tanner Morgan threw an early interception but the Gophers didn’t cave and held the Tigers to a field goal. Overcoming adversity has been a characteristic of this team that with a final 11-2 record won the most games since the 1904 squad went 13-0. The Outback victory over No. 12 ranked Auburn was the program’s 13th in the last 17 games dating back to the close of 2018.

This fall, in Fleck’s third season, Minnesota was 7-2 in Big Ten games. That’s the most conference victories in school history, and the Gophers tied Wisconsin for the best record in the West Division. Among the milestones, and indicators the program has taken a decided change in direction, was Minnesota’s upset of No. 5 ranked Penn State in front of a delirious home crowd in November.

Minnesota was able to win yesterday despite playing without key injured personnel including linebacker Kamal Martin, right tackle Daniel Faalele and tight end Jake Paulson. The loss of Faalele was particularly significant given the lack of depth on the offensive line. The offense, though, dominated the game in time of possession and made big plays both running and passing including a superb 12 catches, 204 yards performance by wide receiver Tyler Johnson.

Scott Studwell, who retired last year after spending decades in college scouting for the Vikings, watched the Outback Bowl and described the win as a “big moment for the program.” The former Illinois and Viking star linebacker has watched the Gophers for years, and he sees how the program has improved. He believes things seem in place for Minnesota to be a “consistent contender” in the Big Ten going forward.

“They’re bigger, they’re more physical, (and) they’re more athletic than they have been,” Studwell told Sports Headliners by telephone this morning. “I mean the future is certainly very bright. P.J. has done a hell of a job getting the kind of people into the program that he wants.”

Except for losing starting seniors Johnson and running back Rodney Smith, the Gophers will have all their offensive regulars returning. Minnesota will lose several top players on defense but coordinator Joe Rossi is one of Fleck’s best assistants and the Gophers should be okay next fall. Having Morgan, one of the Big Ten’s elite quarterbacks return, along with the other offensive pieces, is all but certain to help earn Minnesota at least a top 20 preseason national ranking next summer. Minnesota will also be labeled a favorite in the race to win the 2020 Big Ten West.

The Gophers were ranked No. 18 in the College Football Playoff rankings going into yesterday’s game. Any polls that come out in the next several days will have Minnesota among the nation’s top 15. The Gophers haven’t been in that kind of company at year’s-end since 1967 when UPI poll had them No. 14.

Worth Noting

What’s Studwell’s evaluation of hometown favorite Johnson regarding his NFL draft future? Studwell, who used to spend about 250 days annually evaluating college talent, finds a lot to like about the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Johnson including his length, hands, toughness and ability to step up in big moments like yesterday when he had two touchdown receptions.

“The only underlying question is how fast is he going to run,” said Studwell, who predicted it’s more likely Johnson will be drafted rather than go to an NFL camp as a free agent.

The SuperDome, among the loudest stadiums in the NFL and the site of Sunday’s Vikings-Saints playoff game, opened in 1975 and at the time was considered an architectural marvel. The facility is the only surviving covered stadium in the NFL among those built in the 1970s and 1980s including the Metrodome.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is a proven defensive authority who is often able to confuse opponents, but he will see his team match wits Sunday with soon-to-be 41-year-old Saints quarterback Drew Brees. “It’s hard to trick him because he reads things so quickly,” Zimmer said.

Murray Warmath, the only Rose Bowl coach in Gophers history, would have turned 107 last week if still alive. Mike Wilkinson, who wrote Warmath’s book The Autumn Warrior, celebrated his 76th birthday on Monday.

LeBron James, who turned 35 Monday, is on record as wanting to play one day in the NBA with son Bronny, the southern California high school star coming to Minneapolis for the nationally televised game Saturday against Minnehaha Academy.

Wolves TV analyst Jim Petersen Tweeted his first and second team all-decade players this week. The first unit is comprised of some high quality talents in Jimmy Butler, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Andrew Wiggins, but the second group is another reminder of how few elite players have passed through here: J.J. Barea, Corey Brewer, Luol Deng, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Pekovic.

CBSSports.com is reporting this morning the Twins, Braves and Nationals have made four-year offers to high profile third baseman Josh Donaldson, considered the top free agent remaining in MLB.

 

Stakes High for Gopher Bowl Game

December 31, 2019 - (0) comments

 

Seldom has a University of Minnesota football team been booked into such a meaningful postseason game as Wednesday’s Outback Bowl in Tampa against Auburn.

The Golden Gophers have participated in 20 previous bowls but only three have been in January when the more prestigious and historic games are usually staged. Minnesota split consecutive Rose Bowls in 1961 and 1962, and hasn’t been back to the “Granddaddy of them all” since. It took the Gophers until 2015 to earn their way back to a January bowl game, losing 33-17 to Missouri from the mighty Southeastern Conference in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

On Wednesday the Gophers face a storied SEC program and strong team in the Auburn Tigers, winners of nine games including a 48-45 victory over preseason national championship contender Alabama (believed to be God’s favorite program). The Tigers, 9-3, are about a touchdown favorite to win the Outback Bowl against the 10-2 Gophers. Auburn is No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings, Minnesota No. 18.

Truth is thousands of Minnesotans will sign up right now for a seven point loss to the Tigers who a year ago dismantled the Big Ten’s Purdue Boilermakers in the Music City Bowl, 63-14. Whether Minnesota fans are sunbathing today on the beaches of Southwest Florida, or shivering in ice houses in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Gopher Nation prays its team won’t be embarrassed by the Tigers Wednesday.

If Minnesota can win the game, or at least keep it close, that will have a mega effect on the public’s perception of this year’s team and successor. Here’s why:

After the 2018 Quick Lane Bowl victory in Detroit, Minnesota had earned a 7-6 overall record. In Big Ten games Minnesota was 3-6. Coach P.J. Fleck’s team won three of its last games, including the bowl win over Georgia Tech. Fair-minded fans thought his third season in 2019 held promise, but no one saw 10-2 coming, 7-2 in the Big Ten and a national ranking as high as No. 8.

A program and fan-base mired in skepticism and negativity for decades all of a sudden had reason to celebrate. Minnesota football became a local, regional and national success story. The long-suffering program flirted with achieving enough success to have fans daydreaming about a first Big Ten title since 1967 and a return to Pasadena for the first time in more than 55 years.

Yet a chorus of doubters, even critics, nagged at this team all fall and is ready to rise up in unison if things turn ugly Wednesday. Their argument is the Gophers had a fluky season with a team that experienced more than its share of good fortune. Yes, Minnesota won two nonconference games against mediocre opponents by a total of six points. The Gophers also won two conference games by five points each.

The schedule was favorable, with Minnesota able to avoid some of the Big Ten’s better teams, starting with conference champion Ohio State. In a mediocre West Division, the Gophers lost games against the two best teams, Iowa and Wisconsin. But the pride of Dinkytown defeated then No. 5 ranked Penn State at home in a game that still prompts adrenaline highs in the fan-base, and Minnesota had commanding wins against five of its Big Ten opponents.

If the Gophers win Wednesday, or at least make the Outback Bowl a competitive game, that won’t shut up all the doubters and critics. Some will suggest Auburn came down with a bad case of bowl game indifference, or the Tigers just aren’t that good. Sorry, won’t buy that.

An Outback Bowl win will give the Gophers credibility with the ticket buying public. A convincing win should bump the season ticket base up by several thousand from the low 20,000’s. A loss will damper sales and anticipation for next season, with a so-so home schedule that includes BYU, Iowa and Michigan.

Defeating the Tigers, or having them in retreat late in the game, will add to the confidence Fleck and his assistants have instilled in this team. Make no mistake that these players believed they could have a special season, and they did, showing resolve in close games and overcoming adversity. Beating Auburn, a program from arguably college football’s best conference, will only add to the Gophers’ psyche during the 2020 offseason and into the schedule.

The Minnesota brand adds even more luster with high school recruits if the Gophers show well in the Outback Bowl. Fleck has had three recruiting classes so far at Minnesota but none has cracked the national top 25 year. Beating Auburn would be a bullet point in CAP letters for future Minnesota recruiting by the coaching staff.

P.J. Fleck

Fleck has multiple incentives for the bowl game including coaching smart after the seven-year contraction extension he was given in November. That came as a reward for achievements the program hadn’t experienced in decades and also having the nation’s third longest winning streak. The 39-year-old coach, who has talked about winning Big Ten and national titles at Minnesota since day one, has won 13 of his last 16 games, and has been justifying the confidence of athletic director Mark Coyle who hired him.

The program was stung last week by the news offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has left the program to become OC at Penn State. A longtime Fleck loyalist, Ciarrocca is one of the nation’s best at what he does. His resume just this year includes developing Tanner Morgan, unwanted by other Big Ten schools while in high school, into one of the conference’s best quarterbacks. Ciarrocca oversaw an offense that finished fourth among league teams in yards per game, 426.8. Minnesota also averaged an impressive 34.3 points per game.

With Ciarrocca’s recent departure, Fleck reportedly will have his hand in the offense more on Wednesday than in the past. He could show that the Gophers won’t slow down without Ciarrocca whose versatile offense helped rebuild Minnesota football and before that contributed to a 13-1 Fleck team at Western Michigan.

The bowl game looks like a possible audition for wide receivers coach Matt Simon, the Farmington, Minnesota native who has long been a Fleck favorite. Simon is expected to play a role, likely a major one, in play calling. While Fleck may eventually replace Ciarrocca with an outside hire, speculation is that Simon and tight ends coach Clay Patterson are internal candidates.

The Outback Bowl will be the last game for a core of seniors who contributed to the program’s revival. The Gophers honored 13 seniors before their last regular season home game against Wisconsin. The loss to the Badgers wasn’t a pleasant departing memory for seniors like Thomas Barber, Shannon Brooks, Carter Coughlin, Tyler Johnson, Sam Renner and Rodney Smith. However, they could bask in a lot of glory in the Florida sunshine on Wednesday, and are yet another reason why the Gophers are playing for so much this week at the Outback Bowl.

 

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