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Ex-Viking Sees Zim & GM on Hot Seat

September 05, 2021 - (0) comments

 

Bob Lurtsema, the former Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman who remains a close observer and loyalist to the franchise, predicts a mediocre team record in 2021 and possible end to the Mike Zimmer-Rick Spielman era. “I think both their jobs are on the line,” Lurtsema told Sports Headliners.

This is Zimmer’s eighth season as head coach, while Spielman is in his 10th as GM and 16th as a front office personnel executive with the club. The Vikings have won only three playoff games in the last 16 years and the team missed the playoffs last season after a 7-9 regular season record.

Minnesota has been inconsistent under Zimmer, who in his only NFL head coaching assignment has often earned praise for his defensive savvy. Two times the club has won NFC North Division titles and twice finished second, but four times hasn’t qualified for the playoffs. Spielman earns credit for many savvy draft choices but in the last several off-seasons he’s been unable to fix the offensive line, and he has critics of his quarterback choices over the years—from first-rounder Christian Ponder in 2011 to the mega contract he committed to current QB Kirk Cousins.

Lurtsema particularly scrutinizes Viking offensive and defensive linemen, and wonders why some of them were acquired. “What are they doing?” Lurtsema said about the front office.

He labels the footwork of some defensive linemen as “terrible.” The Vikings were supposed to have fixed their defensive line in the off-season and maybe they have but Lurtsema didn’t like the lack of aggressiveness he watched in the preseason. “If you catch the contact, rather than initiate it, you’re really losing that six to eight inches (of space and advantage) which you’re fighting for all the time on the defensive and offensive line.”

Minnesota’s offensive line is the most suspect unit on the team going into the season opener Sunday, September 12 at Cincinnati against the Bengals. All the starters were on the roster last season when the collective results were lacking. Except for right tackle Brian O’Neill, the other regulars are judged mediocre at best.

Powerful, fast and elusive running back Dalvin Cook, a second round steal by Spielman in 2017, is so talented he can make his line look better than it is. “He can do it on his own,” Lurtsema said of the man he considers team MVP.

Lurtsema’s hope is the offensive line can improve its performance and make Cook’s running production even better. An opposing defense almost completely trying to contain the Viking run game results in minimal pass rush. “Then the sky’s the limit for Cousins and (Justin) Jefferson and a healthy Adam Thielen,” Lurtsema said about the team’s QB and top wide receivers.

Through the years Lurtsema’s predictions of Minnesota’s final win-loss record has been impressive. What’s in the crystal ball for this season? “If they’re .500, that’s about as high as I would go with them,” he said about 2021. “I am hoping for a lot better, of course.”

Lurtsema deliberated between forecasting 8-9 or 9-8 records, before going with the latter because it sounds more positive. “I love Zim—okay—but his job is on the line. He goes 8-9, he’s gone. He has got to have a winning season.”

If there is a losing season, what about Spielman? “I would say he should lose his job, too,” Lurtsema said.

Worth Noting

In Sports Illustrated’s football preview issue out last week the magazine also predicts a 9-8 record for the Vikings. Neither Lurtsema nor S.I. sees Minnesota qualifying for the playoffs.

In a best case scenario for the Vikings, S.I. writer Gary Gramling sees the defense regaining its elite status of 2019, with Jefferson being even better than his sensational rookie season and Cook earning NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Worst case: the defense doesn’t regain its magic, “veterans look old,” newcomers are green, and too often the offense is playing from behind while forcing Cousins to pass too much and thereby neutralizing Cook.

S.I. forecasts NFC North rival Green Bay easily winning the division with a 13-4 record. Former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, going into his second season as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, wins the AFC North with a 12-5 record and advances in the playoffs to the AFC Championship game, per the magazine. The Browns lose to the Kansas City Chiefs who go on to defeat the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl.

The last time the Golden Gophers defeated Ohio State at home was in 1981, winning 35-31 with a pass-happy offensive scheme led by Minnesota head coach Joe Salem. The Buckeye defensive backs coach was Nick Saban. In an email to Sports Headliners, Salem’s son Brent passed along this quip from Joe: “It looks like coach Saban has bounced back from that one!”

Joe Salem (brown slacks)

Joe, 83, and players from the 1981 team enjoyed a reunion at last Thursday night’s Minnesota-Ohio State game at Huntington Bank Stadium. U president Joan Gabel and athletic director Mark Coyle welcomed the group (see photo with Joe in the middle).

As college coaches, administrators, governing bodies and athletes across the country decise how best to make the Name, Image and Likeness opportunity work best for all concerned, prominent Minneapolis attorney Marshall Tanick has ideas worth a look. He suggested in an opinion page letter to the Duluth News Tribune that college athletes who receive compensation for NIL could be required to publicly disclose details through a certification process and thus provide more transparency then is currently in place.

“As part of that process, they would be required to report any compensatory earnings, which would then be deducted from any scholarship or other financial aid or benefits furnished to them by the schools, or reimburse the institutions for what has already been provided to them. …It makes sense that, if these athletes are to use university-provided forums for their financial gain, they should be accountable for the benefits they receive from the schools,” Tanick wrote.

The Tampa Bay Rays, among American League favorites to win the pennant and advance to the World Series, have scored eight or more runs in 20 of 39 games since acquiring DH Nelson Cruz July 23 from the Minnesota Twins.

Minnesota prep legend Ron Stolski will be honored at a retirement celebration from 2 to 5 p.m. October 9 at the Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd. The Minneapolis native devoted 58 years to football coaching, with much of his career at Brainerd High School. No gifts are requested but donations for the Ron Stolski Scholarship Fund (part of the Brainerd Public Schools Foundation) are welcome. There is no cost to attend the event.

Stolski, who retired with 389 wins, will also talk to the CORES luncheon group Thursday at the Bloomington Event Center. In addition to coaching, he has served as the executive director of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association since the organization’s inception in 2006. For more information about the luncheon and program, contact Jim Dotseth, dotsethj@comcast.net. Reservations must be made by Monday, September 6. CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans.

 

No Whimsy, U Can Upset Buckeyes

August 31, 2021 - (0) comments

 

Every dedicated follower of college football knows the famous Notre Dame mantra of “Win one for the Gipper.” Nearly 100 years ago Fighting Irish coach Knute Rockne inspired his players to win a big game for deceased Notre Dame star George Gipp.

How about if the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers pull off an upset for the ages Thursday night against national title contender Ohio State after repeating this pregame mantra: “Win one for Smokey Joe! ”

Now bear with me for a little storytelling.

Minnesota will enter its season opening home game about a 14-point underdog to No. 4 nationally-ranked Ohio State. The game looks like a mismatch, and the history between Minnesota and Ohio State doesn’t offer much encouragement to Gopher fans. Minnesota has seven wins in 52 games against the Buckeyes since the series started in 1921. In the last 75 years the Gophers have four wins, most recently at Ohio State in 2000.

The last Minnesota victory at home was in 1981, when the Gophers won a 35-31 shoot-out in old Memorial Stadium. The Minnesota head coach was Joe Salem, an offensive guru who directed a major upset over No. 18 Ohio State. It was Minnesota’s program highlight during a 4-5 Big Ten season.

Joe Salem photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications

Salem was nicknamed Smokey Joe during his Gopher playing career in the 1950s. Salem cigarettes were popular back then, so a student publication at the U dubbed him Smokey Joe and the nickname stuck. Although a backup quarterback during his playing career, he was a fiery competitor and his stage was never bigger than when he came off the bench to help lead the No. 3 ranked Gophers to a win over No. 1 ranked Iowa. Minnesota went on to win the 1960 national championship. Salem, 83, is long retired from head coaching and returned to his hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota after leaving the Gophers following the 1983 season.

So there you have it, Gopher football fans. Before P.J. Fleck sends his lads onto the field Thursday night, he could tell them “Win one for “Smokey Joe!”

A motivational talk before the game by Fleck is a given and with or without invoking the name of Smokey Joe the Gophers will be sky-high to pull off THE upset of college football’s opening weekend. How can they do it? Here’s how:

Despite having an inexperienced quarterback, the Buckeyes figure to score a lot of points against opponents. Minnesota’s defense is suspect after a so-so 2020 season. It’s mandatory for the U to produce time consuming drives while keeping the Buckeyes’ offense on the sidelines.

Remember two of Minnesota’s most impressive wins during the 2019 season when the Gophers won 11 games? They won the time of possession battle in upset wins over top-10 ranked Penn State and Auburn. In the Auburn game, it wasn’t even close—37:35 to 22:25.

A discrepancy like that for Minnesota Thursday night will greatly enhance the odds of a Gopher win. And on those long drives the Gophers need to produce points either via touchdowns or field goals.

The U will likely run its Heisman Trophy hopeful RB Mo Ibrahim over 25 times in the game. But it’s important, too, that the Gophers not be as predictable offensively as last season. Frequently Minnesota had conservative play calls, including too many third downs with Ibrahim running (or trying to) off tackle when the whole world knew what was coming before the Gophers came out of the huddle.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan will have to throw with accuracy and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford will have to produce an imaginative game plan for the Gophers to sustain drives. No. 1 wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell provides a major contribution if he is healthy enough to play, and a breakthrough night by another pass catcher like tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford would provide a big lift to the offense. With one of college football’s most experienced offensive lines, the Gophers need to push around an Ohio State line and linebackers considered the best in the Big Ten Conference.

In six of eight games last season the Buckeyes scored 38 points or more. It appears Minnesota will have to total over 35 points to have a high probability of winning Thursday night.

It seems like from day one in Dinkytown (winter of 2017), Fleck has preached “the ball is the program.” Translation: against the Buckeyes the Gophers can’t turn over the ball running and passing from the line of scrimmage. On special teams they can’t make misjudgments regarding field position or even worse fumble kickoff returns and punt returns. There will be no margin for error Thursday night against an Ohio State team with the best talent in the Big Ten Conference. The reputation of the Buckeyes can intimidate other teams before games even start.

Errors have to come from the Buckeyes, starting with quarterback C.J. Stroud who saw minimal playing time last season and didn’t even attempt a pass. Minnesota’s defense needs to rattle him early in the game. Maybe it can be done through defensive schemes, punishing tackles or unexpected blitzes. Crowd noise could help, too, making it difficult for the Buckeyes to hear snap counts, and fueling the emotions of Minnesota’s defensive players.

If Minnesota can’t force Stroud into a bad performance—or at least subpar—the party will be over for the Gophers before it even begins. The Buckeyes feature a terrific offensive line and dangerous running backs. Their receiver group, led by All-American Chris Olave, might be the best in America.

Certainly any kind of miscues from the Bucks will be welcome developments for the Gophers. Ohio State interceptions, fumbles, timely penalties, blown assignments etc. could lead directly or indirectly to Minnesota points. A score or two made or set up by the U defense will not only help on the scoreboard but also test the poise of the Buckeyes in their first road game.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day has a 15-0 career record in Big Ten games. For Minnesota to put a blemish on that mark, the Gophers will have to be what Fleck said earlier this month: be the best version of themselves they can be.

The outlook here is that Minnesota has a 20 percent chance of shocking the sports world Thursday night. A win will elevate the program to national importance and increase the likelihood of an elite season. A victory could also become a turn-the-corner night for years to come for Fleck and the program.

If an upset script can’t be achieved, the best alternate storyline is for a loss where the Gophers impressed and played a close game (perhaps 17 points or less). Part of that alternate scrip needs to include Minnesota’s most important players avoiding injuries (including Ibrahim, Morgan, Autman-Bell and defensive linemen Boye Mafe and Nyles Pinckney). A summer night scenario like that could work for the Gophers and their fans including Smokey Joe.

 

Upbeat Ticket Sales for Gopher Football

August 29, 2021 - (0) comments

 

A sellout crowd of 50,805 is anticipated at Huntington Bank Stadium for Thursday night’s season opening game against No. 4 ranked Ohio State. That information and more on Golden Gophers football ticket sales was provided recently by the University of Minnesota at the request of Sports Headliners.

Unlike past home openers, free tickets aren’t being given to first-year students to bolster attendance. Instead, a discounted ticket for all first and second-year students was offered for Thursday night’s game. However, free tickets are being offered to those students for the September 11 Miami (Ohio) game.

With season ticket sales on the rise and many single game buyers paying over $100 for a ticket, the September 2 game will be a much needed financial boost for the athletic department. The Gophers’ stadium, like others in college football, hasn’t hosted fans since 2019 because of the pandemic. The financial deficit in the U athletic department during the 2020-2021 school year is reportedly over $21 million. The department will borrow money from the central administration to cover the loss.

As of August 24 of this year 24,047 public season tickets had been sold. This total represents 7,383 accounts and doesn’t include student tickets.

In 2019 the public season tickets total was 21,664, with 6,605 accounts. The most public season tickets sold since the football program moved back to campus was 34,130 in the opening year of 2009.

As of August 24, 6,523 football student season tickets were sold. This compares with 3,388 in 2019.

The most student season tickets sold since the return to campus is 10,248 in 2009.

P.J. Fleck

Increased interest in Gophers football isn’t surprising. Coach P.J. Fleck’s team is expected to contend for the Big Ten’s West Division championship. The home schedule includes marquee games with traditional power Ohio State (Buckeyes haven’t been to Minneapolis since 2014) and border rival Wisconsin. Although the Gophers were 3-4 during the chaotic pandemic year of 2020, they were 11-2 the season prior and ranked among the better teams in the country.

Worth Noting

Michael Hsu, the former University of Minnesota regent, is developing a nationwide advocacy organization for the rights of college basketball players. He is also an advisory board member of the newly formed College Football Players Association.

In a Name, Image and Likeness deal involving a Gopher athlete, quarterback Tanner Morgan will provide free autographs from 7 to 8 p.m. at Fan HQ Ridgedale on Monday, September 20.

Minnesota Twins radio voice Cory Provus will call college football games for FS1 and BTN. Others with Minnesota connections who will have various roles with BTN football are James Laurinaitis, Annie Sabo and Brock Vereen.

In their final preseason game Friday night the Minnesota Vikings saw the 2021 gold standard in NFL head coaches, Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs. Others considered top 10 head coaches include the Green Bay Packers’ Matt LaFleur and former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski who leads the Cleveland Browns.

VSA Auction items for bid through September 2 include a 1974 Minnesota Vikings NFC Championship player ring. The current high bid is $14,000.

The Miami Marlins, whose top prospects include former Gopher pitcher Max Meyer, have the No. 3 farm system, per MLB.com. The Twins rank No. 15 among the list of 30 organizations, with the Baltimore Orioles No. 1.

The Twins, headed for their worst season record since 59-102 in 2016, have only four pitchers (Jorge Alcala, Alex Colome, Tyler Duffey, Caleb Thielbar) on their active pitching roster who were with the club on opening day.

The Gopher baseball team’s fall schedule opens September 7 and ends October 2. Included are intra-squad scrimmages, and home games against St. Thomas (Sept. 17), Concordia, St. Paul (Sept. 24) and the alumni (Oct. 2).

 

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