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Beat the Pack Sunday? Read Here

November 16, 2021 - (0) comments

 

If on Sunday the Vikings can pull their season record to 5-5 with a home win over the 8-2 NFC North Division leading Packers, public momentum for sending Mike Zimmer to the unemployment line drops a few notches.

If by a miracle the coach eventually gurus his club to the playoffs, and then wins a couple of postseason games, let’s start a Zim for governor campaign. Maybe even send him directly to the White House.

As of today, Zimmer cronies have no plans to set up 2022 campaign headquarters downtown, or on the Iron Range where his persona is a perfect fit.

Amidst gloomy skies last week I predicted the Vikings to win in SoCal against the Chargers. Mostly I foresaw a desperately needed victory last Sunday because of the 3-5 Vikings’ slick running game and the Chargers’ flimsy ability to defend it.

The Packers look surprisingly improved on defense this fall, and the balance they have added to an always dangerous offense is why NFL.com has Green Bay No. 1 in its power rankings of league teams. The Packers shut out the Seahawks Sunday and in their last five games have given up just 58 points.

Dalvin Cook (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

Something to watch for Sunday is if talented linebacker Rashan Gary’s hyperextended elbow allows him to play and help control Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook. Packer stud offensive tackle David Bakhtari might return after missing all of the season so far.

Put a question mark near Anthony Barr’s name, too. He missed the Chargers game and his presence is important if the Vikings are to slow Packer power back A.J. Dillon (about 250 pounds). More elusive runner Aaron Jones is injured and won’t play.

Zimmer is 6-7-1 in games against the Packers and Aaron (Houdini) Rodgers. “Our guys have to understand that this guy can make every throw,” Zimmer said Monday. “He can use his legs. He’s very, very smart. He can get them in a lot of good things (situations). So we’re gonna have to be tight in coverage but…we can’t give up big plays as well. They’re spreading the ball around a lot.”

Zimmer won’t pull his career record to .500 against the Packers on Sunday. Nope, not unless Rodgers develops COVID again. He was rusty in his return game last Sunday but the Vikings won’t see more of the layoff effect. At 37 he is playing cocky, looking like a sixth grader toying with fourth graders in a backyard football game. He is still the whole package including amazing elusiveness and poise.

Vikes go to 4-6 Sunday and things will look more dicey for a gubernatorial run.

Worth Noting

Zimmer took a phone call from his friend Deion Sanders during yesterday’s news conference. Asked if Sanders and long time pal Bill Parcells are the biggest headliners in his contact list, Zimmer added Kenny Chesney. “I got a few,” the coach said.

Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins passed for 294 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 109.5 rating in the win over the Chargers. Cousins became the sixth player ever with at least two touchdown passes and a passer rating of 100-or-higher in seven consecutive road games.

Here is something Cousins doesn’t receive enough praise for: His durability. Dating back to playing with Washington in 2015, he has been in every regular season game but one.

Taylor Heinicke, the vagabond quarterback who was with the Vikings as an undrafted rookie in 2015, seems to have found solid ground in Washington where as the starter he led the team to a surprise win over the Super Bowl champion Bucs Sunday.

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck gave no indication at his Monday news conference he intends to change starting quarterbacks. During practices backup Zach Annexstad receives significant repetitions but it doesn’t appear he will replace starter Tanner Morgan whose inaccurate passes have become a trend.

Fleck is loyal to Morgan and the two have been through a lot together. The coach values the redshirt senior’s skills in game management and not turning over the ball.

There are passing game issues at receiver, too, and sophomore redshirt WR Dylan Wright who showed playmaking ability earlier in the year is now used sparingly with indications he isn’t meeting expectations. “Guys earn their playing time,” Fleck answered briefly when responding to a question about Wright’s status.

Stats whiz Daniel House from the Gophers Guru website reports Minnesota ranks 116th in explosive plays out of 130 college football teams.

Fleck reported no significant injuries from the Iowa game, leaving the assumption everyone could be ready for Indiana in Bloomington on Saturday. “We came out pretty healthy.”

Minnesota hockey legend Lou Nanne, 80, enjoys part of the year at his condo in Florida that is just a few miles from the residence of former Gophers football coach Glen Mason, who is also back and forth between Minneapolis and the “sunshine state.”

The former North Stars president and GM remains captivated by second-season Wild forward Kirill Kaprzov. “He’s got skills very few players have,” Nanne said.

Nanne said the NHL Western Conference race is so tight with competitive teams. “It’s going to be crazy.”

The Wild? “They’ll definitely make the playoffs,” he said.

The Land O’Lakes Center for Excellence has many Gophers athletes walk through its halls every day. It’s a welcoming place where athletes greet and open doors for one another and visitors. On one wall are paper signs people have written about what it means to belong. (See photo).

The Wild, Wolves, Gophers hockey and basketball are facing ticket selling challenges. A hockey industry source said season ticket totals for the Wild and Wolves are unusually low at less than 8,000 each. Empty seats at Gopher hockey are some of the best in the arena. Gophers basketball is under 6,000 public season tickets.

With Stan Bowman out as GM for the 2022 US Olympic men’s hockey team it seems Wild boss Bill Guerin could move up from assistant GM.

The Wild can break series ties with rivals this week at Xcel Energy Center. The Wild face the Sharks (34-34-8 all-time) tonight and Thursday evening the Stars (33-33-13). The Stars game is a homecoming for defenseman Ryan Suter who is second all-time in franchise assists for the Wild, and second in points and games played.

Chris Wright, the recently retired United executive and before that president of the Timberwolves, will keep homes in Eden Prairie and Naples, Florida, plus visiting his 98-year-old mom in his native England.

Dave Mona, former co-host of the “WCCO Radio Sports Huddle,” will co-host with wife Linda a Fan in the Stands trip for the station and Holiday Vacations to Fort Myers to watch Twins spring training March 15-20.

Dick Jonckowski, Minnesota’s prominent master of ceremonies, emcees the Minnesota Old Timers Hockey luncheon at Mancini’s Char House November 22.

Lynx GM and coach Cheryl Reeve was the keynote speaker Friday at the annual meeting of the Twin Cities Compensation Network. Her comments included gender equity.

 

Gophers Need a Lift at Quarterback

November 14, 2021 - 2 Comments

 

It’s time for the University of Minnesota football coaches to consider replacing Tanner Morgan at quarterback. A struggling Morgan has been too inconsistent this season and he faltered again yesterday in Minnesota’s 27-22 loss to Iowa.

With the Gophers leading 13-10 early in the third quarter, Morgan’s sideline pass to an open Chris Autman-Bell was too high, and the errant throw cost Minnesota a third down conversion. The Gophers punted to Iowa and the Hawkeyes scored on a 72-yard touchdown pass on their first play to take a lead they never gave up in the battle for possession of Floyd of Rosedale.

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said at his postgame news conference the timing of the throw was early. “That was a critical play in the game,” said Fleck who is now 0-5 in the border rivalry with Iowa.

Morgan’s passes were off-target throughout the game, including balls that just sailed beyond his receivers. He completed 14 of 30 passes for 183 yards including a 68-yard strike to Autman-Bell for a fourth quarter touchdown.

Morgan had multiple near interceptions in the loss that knocked the Gophers out of a four-way first place tie in the Big Ten West Division. A short quarterback by Big Ten standards, Morgan’s passes are frequently tipped by defenders rushing toward him with raised hands in the air.

After the Gophers scored late in the fourth quarter on the Autman-Bell pass, they trailed 24-22. That set up a two-point conversion attempt where Morgan rolled to his right and threw toward the end zone only to have his pass knocked down.

In the closing minutes, behind by two points, Morgan and the Gophers had opportunities to change the score. Not a playmaker with his legs, Morgan couldn’t create extra yards, or time to throw the ball, when plays broke down.

It wasn’t just the quarterback who was inconsistent in the passing scheme. The receivers dropped too many passes, or didn’t make difficult catches, or even get open. That kind of performance has been another flaw in the Minnesota offense this season. The Gophers have nowhere near the receiving talent of two years ago when Morgan was so impressive throwing to all-conference playmakers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman.

“You’d like to be able to see more completions, that’s for sure,” Fleck said. “Too many drops.”

The coaching staff’s responsibility is to provide more capable receivers than Minnesota has shown. That has to be considered a recruiting failure and it’s uncertain how the receiver roster gets fixed in the offseason.

P.J. Fleck

The Gophers, 6-4 overall, 4-3 in Big Ten games, have remaining games at Indiana and home against Wisconsin. Then there will be a yet to be determined bowl game. Morgan is a wonderful person, terrific leader and outstanding game manager, but the present circumstances and timing provide an opportunity for a shakeup at quarterback.

Fleck has four scholarship quarterbacks behind Morgan who to his credit has helped win a lot of games since becoming the starter after the 2018 season was underway. Two of them, redshirt junior Zack Annexstad and redshirt sophomore Cole Kramer, have game experience.

Annexstad lost his job to Morgan in 2018 after he was injured. Annexstad has started seven games for Minnesota and has a stronger arm than Morgan. Kramer has been effective in the wildcat formation this season and has thrown two touchdown passes. He is the best runner among the quarterbacks and has exceptional on-field poise.

A change in the quarterbacks now could spark a passing game that has struggled in painful close losses to Bowling Green, Illinois and Iowa. A quarterback who could provide an occasional running threat in the option offense will make the superb running game even better. Ability to throw with more arm strength can get the ball down the field faster.

Indiana, 0-7 in the Big Ten, was a preseason top 20 team but has been hit hard by key injuries. Yesterday the Hoosiers lost 38-3 to mediocre Rutgers. Although the Hoosiers will try to rally for their final home game next Saturday, their win probability is about 20 percent. That’s a prime stage and opponent to give a start to Kramer or Annexstad.

A solid contribution from the quarterback and a Gopher victory improves the possibility of an upset against a hot Badgers team on a six-game winning streak. Although the Gophers have home field advantage, Minnesota has about a 30 percent likelihood of winning the game as things appear now.

If the Gophers change quarterbacks for the last three games of 2021 and his play elevates the offense that will be welcome news for next season. The development would set expectations for a much more balanced offense that is likely to include the return of All-American tailback Mo Ibrahim.

In yesterday’s game a sideline TV shot of Fleck showed him wringing his hands on a crucial play. At his news conference, the frustration of the loss was perhaps more evident than any time in his Gopher career. Being 0-5 against Iowa is painful.

Fleck’s record against his other border rival is 1-3. The coaches need to decide if another QB gives them a better path to making their record 2-3 against Wisconsin and again taking possession of Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

 

U 4-Star Recruit List May Grow

November 10, 2021 - (0) comments

 

The Golden Gophers football program has 14 verbal commits for its recruiting class of 2022, with a list of 12 three-star players and two four-stars, per the composite rankings of 247Sports. Ryan Burns—the recruiting authority from GopherIllustrated that is affiliated with 247—told Sports Headliners three-star commits Zach Evans, Kristen Hoskins and Jacob Knuth will be in discussions later this month for four-star status.

Evans, a running back from Rockwall, Texas, plays in the most competitive classification in the Lone Star state. “He’s putting up gaudy stats in 6A Texas football,” Burns said.

Ryan Burns

Evans, listed at 5-9, 200, could figure prominently in coach P.J. Fleck’s plans for 2022 with the return status of injured tailbacks Mo Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams unclear. Burns expects Evans to enroll at the University of Minnesota in January and participate in spring football.

Hoskins, from Alexandria, Minnesota, played a major role in helping the Cardinals to a 43-35 section playoffs win over Bemidji last Friday, scoring four touchdowns and making a game-saving interception. Listed by 247Sports at 5-9, 160, the wide receiver is small by even high school standards but Burns raves about him.

“The kid is incredibly electric with the ball in his hands. He’s incredibly quick, incredibly fast,” Burns said.

Recruiting evaluators know Hoskins is one of the most explosive playmakers in the Midwest but Burns believes his commitment to Minnesota is for sure. “…I don’t think another offer would really sway him.”

Knuth, from Harrisburg, South Dakota, is 247’s No. 1 prospect in that state. The 6-4, 207-pound quarterback can make plays with not only his arm but his legs and could have his team headed to a state championship.

Burns said Knuth’s size and skill-set is similar to class of 2021 four-star QB Athan Kaliakmanis. With the addition of Knuth, who is expected to enroll in January, the Gophers will have six scholarship quarterbacks if redshirt senior starter Tanner Morgan decides to play another year. A Morgan return probably means at least one scholarship QB will transfer to another program.

Minnesota’s verbal commits can sign National Letters of Intent next month including current four-star defensive linemen Trey Bixby from Eden Prairie and Anthony Smith of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. Burns said Penn State’s defensive coordinator recently watched Smith play but doesn’t believe anything has changed regarding Smith’s commitment. “All indications…from Anthony are that he is firm with Minnesota, and I haven’t heard anything to contradict that.”

Fleck and his staff aren’t done recruiting, with Burns expecting the 2022 class to have a few (if not several) more scholarship players even if a final total is months away. Positions targeted will include offensive line, linebacker and perhaps running back with the fluid situation regarding All-American Ibrahim’s decision to play another season.

Boye Mafe

Burns said the Gophers are looking at junior college defensive and offensive line prospects, too. Current d-linemen Nyles Pinckney, Micah Dew-Treadway and Val Martin won’t be back because their eligibilities are expiring. It’s not clear whether starting defensive end Boye Mafe and offensive linemen Daniel Faalele and John Michael Schmitz will return, according to Burns.

Decisions on return plans by those players and others who are veterans will be known within about two weeks after Minnesota’s bowl game. That timeline will allow whether to enroll in classes.

Burns has a prediction about how Saturday’s game against Iowa can go in the Gophers’ favor. “Score 20 points. 20 points against Iowa should win you a football game.”

Both teams are defense-first, with offenses not as reliable. Burns said the Gophers will have to use some creativity offensively and definitely not rely almost exclusively on their running game. “Tanner is going to have to throw it 25, 30 times,” he said while pointing out Purdue and Wisconsin passed effectively in wins over the Hawkeyes.

Iowa likes to pound the ball, too, and can be reluctant to open up the offense.

“I have more faith in Minnesota’s passing game, than I do Iowa’s,” Burns said.

Worth Noting

Max Shikenjanski, son of former Gophers basketball center Jim Shikenjanski, is an outstanding junior quarterback for Stillwater. “The thing for him is, is it going to be football or is it going to be basketball,” Burns said. He described the Stillwater guard as one of the state’s top basketball prospects in the class of 2023. As for football, Max visited campus for a game earlier this fall and will be evaluated more in the summer.

All the best to my good friend Charley Walters as he recovers from a recent medical procedure.

Don’t expect former Gophers head coach Jerry Kill, now interim head coach at TCU, to be leading the Horned Frogs next season. AD Jermiah Donati made it clear to the Star Telegram in a November 2 story that Kill isn’t a candidate to succeed Gary Patterson.

The U athletic department should initiate a fund-raising campaign to place the first statues outside of Huntington Bank Stadium. The vote here is for coach Bernie Bierman and players Bobby Bell, Bronko Nagurski and Bruce Smith.

Bierman coached the Gophers to five of their seven national championships from 1934-1941. Bell, twice an All-American tackle, was a ferocious pass rusher who had everything to do with Minnesota playing in two Rose Bowls, winning a Big Ten title and compiling a 22-6-1 record during his three seasons of eligibility (1960-1962).

Nagurski, named an All-American at both fullback and tackle, is a football immortal from the 1920s and 1930s who was named to Sports Illustrated’s NCAA All-Century Team. Smith played halfback on two national championship teams and won the 1941 Heisman Trophy—the only Gopher ever to do so. Hollywood made a movie about him, Smith of Minnesota. The handsome football star played himself in the film.

 

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