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Gopher Catalyst: Illini Loss in 2018

October 01, 2019 - (0) comments


A Tuesday notes column:

The Golden Gophers are 7-1 since last year’s embarrassing 55-31 loss to a bad Illinois team on the road. Minnesota has also won six straight games dating back to last season and that includes road wins over Wisconsin in 2018 and at Purdue last Saturday.

The last time the Gophers won six straight was during the 2003-2004 seasons. Minnesota’s overall records during those years were 10-3 and 7-5; with 5-3 and 3-5 totals in Big Ten games. Off to a 4-0 start this season, coach P.J. Fleck got his first opening conference win in three years against Purdue.

Right now the Gophers are favorites in their next four games, including this Saturday at home against 2-2 Illinois. The favorite label changes almost for sure when Big Ten power Penn State comes to Minneapolis November 9. After Illinois the Gophers face Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland.

No team in the country runs slant patterns better than Minnesota does with its outstanding wide receivers. That’s what former Minnesota coach Glen Mason said on BTN Saturday after watching the Gophers gain 396 yards passing in their 38-31 win over Purdue, with a lot of yards coming on slant patterns.

Minnesota had four touchdown receptions from wide receivers in the game, with two by sophomore Rashod Bateman and one each from sophomore Chris Autman-Bell and senior Tyler Johnson. Fleck, who saw his Gophers score two touchdowns on plays following timeouts he called, said on his KFAN Radio show this afternoon that Bateman and Autman-Bell run about 22 miles per hour.

Tanner Morgan

Minnesota sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan is the Big Ten’s Co-Offensive Player of the Week after setting a single game conference record for passing completions. He was 21 of 22, a .955 percentage, the most in league history for any quarterback with 13 attempts or more.

The Gophers had issues with missed tackles in the Purdue game and Fleck said on the radio there was an emphasis on correcting the problem in practice today.

It will be interesting to see if the Gophers Athletic Department offers any more $10 flash sale tickets for home games. That seems unlikely for the Illinois, Nebraska and Wisconsin games but possible for Maryland and perhaps Penn State. A flash sale resulted in 7,150 tickets being sold for the home opener against South Dakota State.

The Nutrition Center at the Gophers’ Athletes Village is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. A variety of breakfast and lunch items is offered for about $11 per person.

Congratulations to Bob Stein and Alan Page on being selected for the Sports Business Journal list of the 100 most accomplished NFL alumni for what they achieved in their post-football careers. Stein, the former Gophers All-American defensive end who played for four NFL teams including the Minnesota Vikings, was a driving force as CEO for the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves and prior to that was a sports attorney. Page, the former Vikings defensive tackle and league MVP, is a retired state of Minnesota Supreme Court Justice who has devoted much of his life to community causes and last year was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House.

BTN covers Big Ten Men’s Basketball Media Day Wednesday including the news conference by Minnesota coach Richard Pitino starting at 8:30 a.m. from Rosemount, Illinois.

Sales of the new Goldy Gopher book (What Should I Be When I Grow Up?) has already resulted in $1,500 being donated to the Goldy Gopher Enhancement Fund at the University of Minnesota. Goldy’s Locker Room has partnered with Karen Kaler (wife of former U President Eric Kaler) to publish the children’s book featuring Goldy Gopher, with proceeds benefitting future Goldys.

The book, which follows the popular mascot on a journey around the University as he explores various fields of study, is exclusively available at Goldy’s Locker Room stores throughout the Twin Cities and online at “Contributing to the mission of Goldy Gopher and the student athletes who make up the Spirit Squad is important to us. After all, Goldy is the face of our brand,” said Ron Leafblad, President and CEO of Gold Country.

Prep football coaching milestones: Marc Franz, Rogers, and Brian Remick, Red Lake County, won their 100th career games last Friday. Franz’s career record is 100-60 in 17 seasons as head coach at Rogers High School. Remick is 100-91 in 20 seasons as a head coach, including 12 at Red Lake County.

The Twins rank No. 5 in a power rankings story about the 10 MLB playoff teams. Ahead of the Twins in the article posted yesterday are the Astros, Dodgers, Yankees and Braves.

When the Twins open their playoff series Friday against the Yankees in New York they face a team that defeated them four of six times during the regular season. The most memorable game might be the extra inning 14-12 Yankees win at Target Field July 23 that lasted five hours. There were six home runs in the game, with three travelling over 400 feet including a 457 blast by Minnesota’s Miguel Sano.

The Twins depart for New York on Wednesday and will work out at Yankee Stadium Thursday afternoon.

Twins president Dave St. Peter talking about the joy this year’s team brought to owner Jim Pohlad: “Jim…at his heart is a fan.”


Word Is Twins Falvey Wants Long Stay

September 29, 2019 - (0) comments


With the emergence of the 2019 Twins as one of the best teams in Major League Baseball, the franchise’s front office leader, 36-year-old Derek Falvey, could be coveted by other organizations—and soon.

Falvey grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts near Boston. His home town is about a 20 minute car ride from Fenway Park, the historic home of the legendary Boston Red Sox organization that is looking for a new leader of its baseball operations. Twins president Dave St. Peter was asked by Sports Headliners if he expected the Red Sox to request permission to talk with Falvey, who received a five-year contract with Minnesota after being hired as chief baseball officer in November of 2016.

“I don’t know that,” St. Peter said. “What I do know is Derek and his wife (Meghan) love Minnesota. They’re incredibly committed to this community and what we’re trying to build with the Twins. Derek will speak for himself but I know that based on my time with him, his 100 percent focus is on Minnesota, and that’s where he wants …to be for a long, long time.”

Falvey will be a favorite to win the MLB Executive of the Year. The Twins, who finished with a 78-84 record last season, are among the biggest of surprise stories in baseball this year. Minnesota has a 101-60 record heading into today’s final regular season game against the Kansas City Royals, and can tie the 1965 team’s record of 102 wins in one season. The club has won a near franchise record number of games, led the AL Central for most of this season, shown both a remarkable consistency and resiliency, and hit a MLB record number of home runs, 304.

Falvey & Levine

Other organizations will now look at the Twins when contemplating how to fill their staff needs on the big league and farm system levels. That doesn’t necessarily mean Falvey, GM Thad Levine or manager Rocco Baldelli will be leaving Minnesota but personnel further down on the organizational chart almost certainly will.

“The more success that we have, the more likely it is we’re going to lose some people to other organizations,” St. Peter acknowledged. “It’s just part of the deal. I’d much rather have that problem than have an organization that nobody is seeking anybody from.”

When Falvey was hired he quickly brought Levine to the Twins. The two have formed a close partnership. Their ideas, vision and personnel hires have changed the culture and the way the Twins operate. The franchise has invested in people, technology, systems and processes that have paid off and indicate future success, too.

“Derek is (an) incredibly intelligent, very relationship-focused individual,” St. Peter said. “In many ways we think he is the perfect leader for a modern baseball team.”

When St. Peter and the Pohlad family were looking for a new front office leader they learned from talking with candidates there was a high regard for the younger players in the organization. Falvey benefitted from the start in having developing talents like Jose Berrios, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario, Taylor Rogers and Miguel Sano under contract. They have been among the most signicant contributors to the surprising turnaround. But Falvey and helpers have brought in impact talent, too, including Ehire Adrianza, Willians Astudillo, Jason Castro, Marwin Gonzalez, Jake Odorizzi and Nelson Cruz, the veteran team leader and a popular choice for Twins MVP.

The decision by Falvey and Levine to fire manager Paul Molitor after last season was risky. Popular with the fan base and media, Molitor had been voted AL Manager of the Year in 2017. The decision to terminate him didn’t make sense to Molitor admirers and with the move Falvey and Levine positioned themselves for public ridicule in 2019 and beyond if Baldelli and the club failed on the field.

The 38-year-old Baldelli, who never managed before, took control of the Twins like he was a professor of the dugout and clubhouse. Baldelli has been unflappable in public, never berating players on the field or in the media. He and his staff, a reorganized group of coaches, have built trust with the players who are a diverse group with varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

“I think he (Baldelli) realizes that every player is different,” St. Peter said. “He has to have maybe a little different approach with one guy versus the next. But he also recognizes playing this game is hard and playing it over the course of 162 games in 180 days is really hard. There’s going to be ups and there’s going to be a lot of downs.

“There’s going to be some success but there’s going to be a lot more failures for every player. I think…Rocco understands that his role as the leader in this organization is to support those guys, to put them in a position to be successful.”

That success will have the Twins opening the postseason in New York against the Yankees on Friday. Minnesota’s road record, 55-25, is better than its 46-35 record for the home season in Minneapolis. “We’ve played incredibly well on the road so starting on the road in the postseason is not much of a concern,” St. Peter said. “It may even be an advantage.”

The Twins hope to have most of their injured players available for the postseason but reliever Sam Dyson, acquired in a trade with the Giants in July, may not even be with the club until 2021. He had shoulder surgery last week, and there is controversy whether he was injured when the Twins dealt for him. St. Peter doesn’t expect his club will receive future compensation from the Giants.

St. Peter is “bullish” about the Twins’ chances of competing for championships beyond this year. Despite a long list of expiring contracts, he expects the personnel core to return next season and that group could be blended with prospects the organization is optimistic about. That has the Twins president hopeful regarding competing for championships the next three seasons and beyond.

Owner Jim Pohlad was with the team last week when the Twins clinched the Central Division title. St. Peter believes the success was vindication for Pohlad who he thinks has been unfairly criticized by fans over the years as unwilling to spend money.

“It’s quite the opposite,” St. Peter said. “Jim has invested mightily in people, in process systems and facilities.”

St. Peter sees the support of the Pohlad family as providing a competitive advantage for the franchise. “Jim does not set a hard and fast budget (payroll) for our players. Derek Falvey has the autonomy to run our baseball operations. If you asked Derek, I think he would tell you that never once had Jim told him he could not do something.”


U Boiler Wreckers Back Again

September 26, 2019 - (0) comments


University of Minnesota running backs Shannon Brooks, Rodney Smith and Mohamed Ibrahim are already names passionate Purdue fans should long remember. And Saturday afternoon in West Lafayette Boiler Nation has another look at the trio when the 3-0 Golden Gophers visit 1-2 Purdue in the opening Big Ten game of the season for both teams.

Injuries have troubled Brooks for much of his career but he has been cleared to play against the Boilermakers Saturday and he could make his season debut in the ESPN2 televised game. “I think there’s that spunk, that look in his eye, that he cannot wait to get back on the field,” Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck said.

Brooks played in just one game last season and six the year before, but 2016 and 2015 were healthier seasons for the Georgia native known for his exceptional field vision and slashing style. He had a career high 176 yards rushing at Purdue in the 2015 game Minnesota dominated and won, 41-13. His 17 rushes included a 71-yard touchdown run. And although the Gophers lost at Purdue in 2017, Brooks rushed for 116 yards on 18 carries.

Smith, a redshirt senior and Georgia native like Brooks, had one of his best days in 2016 against Purdue in Minneapolis. Smith ran for 153 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries as the Gophers won, 43-31. The 153 yards was his most ever in a single game until he equaled the total against New Mexico State in 2018. A hard runner who can turn short gains into longer ones, Smith is in the top 10 for most career rushing attempts and yards in Minnesota program history.

With Brooks and Smith injured last season, the Gophers turned to then redshirt freshman Ibrahim to help them to a 41-10 win in Minneapolis. Among the more determined runners in the Big Ten, Ibrahim ran for 155 yards on 18 carries, an impressive 8.6 yards per carry. That was his best as a Gopher until he dominated Georgia Tech with 224 yards rushing in Minnesota’s Quick Lane Bowl win.

Brooks, Smith and Ibrahim have befuddled the Boilermakers in the past and Minnesota will want more of the same Saturday. Minnesota’s offensive game plan every week is to control the football and the clock, with an emphasis on running . The Gophers rank 10th nationally in time of possession at an average per game of 34:36.

Minnesota will want to keep the ball away from a Purdue offense averaging 371 yards passing per game, tops in the Big Ten and fourth nationally. The Boilers, however, are rushing for just 50 yards each game. Purdue is third worst in the conference in rushing defense, giving up 175.3 yards.

Not to be greedy but Brooks, Smith and Ibrahim have to hope at least one of them adds a page or two Saturday to their “Purdue scrapbooks.”

Worth Noting

The Gophers have won five of their last six against the Boilermakers, but the game Saturday looks like a tossup for those who wager. Minnesota is 3-0 in nonconference games but has won by a total of only 13 points, and going into the season was considered a lesser team to Purdue by college football authorities. Purdue has key injuries and has won only one nonconference game, but is playing at home and with an explosive offense could take an early lead and make it difficult for the Gophers to catch up.

Minnesota has won five of its last 18 Big Ten games, but coincidentally holds the nation’s longest nonconference winning streak at 18 straight.

Gophers basketball coach Lindsay Whalen has a five-star commit in Alexia Smith from Ohio. That will help the 2020 recruiting class because three of the top state of Minnesota prospects are headed elsewhere: Paige Bueckers of Hopkins to Connecticut, Lauren Jensen of Lakeville North to Iowa, and Alyssa Ustby of Rochester Lourdes to North Carolina.

Look for the Vikings, who since last year are annually scheduling Friday night prep football games at TCO Stadium in Eagan, to arrange for future matchups involving Minneapolis and St. Paul teams. Among schools under consideration should be Washburn, the first big school state champion when the Minnesota High School League created the football playoffs in the 1970s.

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins wowed business and other community leaders while speaking at Tuesday’s Twin Cities Dunkers meeting at the Minikahda Club. Cousins was inspiring and informative in his remarks including when he talked about the power of free enterprise and how much business does for society.

Cousins is a Murray’s patron and enjoys the downtown restaurant that opened in 1946, and is still a city favorite.

This year the Vikings are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1969 team that had a 12-2 regular season record and played in the 1970 Super Bowl. One of the team’s two losses came in the opening game against the New York Giants whose roster included Bob Lurtsema. He was awarded the game ball by the Giants for his performance in the 24-23 win. After joining the Vikings in 1971 he later became Benchwarmer Bob, backing up one of the great NFL defensive lines in history.

Lurtsema, 77, regularly walks about four miles at Orchard Lake near his home in Lakeville.

The 3M Open, scheduled next year for July 20-26, avoids the busy July 4 holiday that the PGA Tour Event faced in 2019. There is a seven-year commitment to hold the tournament at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine. Sports Headliners is told that only in 2023 might dates conflict with the Fourth of July period.

Richard Pitino

Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino expects that redshirt junior forward Eric Curry, who missed much of last season because of injuries, will be ready when the schedule starts in November. Curry, who has shown skill but been slowed by injuries during his Minnesota career, will be a key player on a team reorganizing after the departures last spring of the two best players, forward-guard Amir Coffey and forward Jordan Murphy.

With the team in early practices for the 125th season of Gophers basketball, Pitino isn’t sure about many things with his team but believes a strength could be outside shooting. Now starting his seventh season, Pitino has coached two of his last three teams to the NCAA Tournament. “I think we’re building stability,” he said.

Dave Wright, sports information director at Hamline, announced on Facebook Monday he is retiring from his position in October. His varied experiences in communications include working for the St. Paul Saints in their early years under Mike Veeck.


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