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Vikings Positioned for Future Rebuild

November 08, 2021 - (0) comments

 

The Vikings, 3-5 after yesterday’s loss to the Ravens, are a long shot to make the playoffs and have missed the postseason in two of the last three seasons. The Vikings, although playing with effort, are a flawed team whose faults include not being able to capitalize on opponents’ mistakes and not finishing off games with a victory.

Embattled head coach Mike Zimmer probably not only needs to lead the Vikings to the playoffs but also win a couple of games to save his job. GM Rick Spielman, also the target of a highly critical fan base, has even a longer tenure in his position than Zimmer who he hired before the 2014 season.

The Wilf family could decide in January it’s time for new leadership on and off the field. Part of Mark and Zygi Wilf’s thinking might be prompted after reviewing a roster with several aging players among Minnesota’s impact performers.

Kirk Cousins

Quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive end Everson Griffen are both 33, safety Harrison Smith 32, cornerback Patrick Peterson and wide receiver Adam Thielen are 31, linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks and defensive tackle Michael Pierce are all 29.

There are longevity questions also about two of the team’s best performers, defensive end Danielle Hunter, 27, and running back Dalvin Cook, 26. Injuries have sidelined Hunter in both 2020 and 2021. Cook missed most of his rookie season in 2017 and injuries, including this season, have forced him out of the lineup numerous times in the last five years. NFL running backs have among the shortest of careers in the NFL.

None of this is to suggest the Vikings have to implode their roster next offseason. But except for 22-year-old wide receiver Justin Jefferson the Vikings don’t have any young stars on the roster, and whoever is managing the personnel will need to make decisions about aging players who have been major contributors in the past. In 2022 the club certainly could begin to transition its roster with aggressiveness while retaining the most valued players including Cook and probably Hunter.

The Wilfs might do a postseason audit, including review of the player roster and salary cap, and decide a new regime gets the opportunity to rebuild the Vikings during the next couple of years. The Wilfs are fans, too, and they have to be frustrated with mediocrity.

Worth Noting

The Twins announced this morning they have hired Jayce Tingler, 40, as bench coach and David Popkins, 31, as hitting coach. As manager of the Padres, Tingler led the team to the National League Division Series in 2020 and finished second in NL Manager of the Year voting. Popkins was hitting coach for the Great Lakes Loons, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ High-A affiliate. The Loons led the High-A Central Division in home runs (187), slugging percentage (.456) and OPS (.800) last season.

Yesterday Jefferson played in his 24th career game and increased his career receiving yards to 2,032 yards. He is the second-fastest player in the Super Bowl era to reach 2,000 career receiving yards (Odell Beckham Jr., 21 games).

Presuming the Vikings draft somewhere between 16 and 32 in the first round of next year’s NFL Draft, they might select a quarterback like Nevada’s Carson Strong or Pitt’s Kenny Pickett. It’s believed Spielman is evaluating both of them.

Among deer hunters planning to be out for the opener last weekend were Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant and his legendary dad Bud, 94 years old. Mike is chasing a 12th state football championship.

The Golden Gophers, 6-3, expectedly lost their opening game to Ohio State but their other two defeats, against lowly Bowling Green and mediocre Illinois, were major upsets. Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck said early last week that in nine years as a head coach his personal worst effort was for Bowling Green.

Gophers’ kicker Matthew Trickett, the Ken State transfer who was the MAC Special Teams Player of the Year in 2019 after making 82.5 percent of 57 attempts, is 10 of 17 for 58.2 percent through eight games at Minnesota. He is three of five from 40-49 yards, and one of four from 50 or more. He has also missed two extra points including one in Saturday’s 14-6 loss to Illinois.

One Stadium Village lot about three blocks from Huntington Bank Stadium is charging $30 for parking at Gophers football games. Any place asking more?

Congratulations to retired Gopher trainer Jim Marshall and wife Mary Lee who celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary November 16.

Minnesota native and Wild forward Nick Bjugstad, who scored the winning shootout goal Saturday night against the Penguins, made this promise to the fans before the season started: “I’ll do my best every day to bring the Stanley Cup to St. Paul.”

Jack LaFontaine, chosen last season as college hockey’s best goalie, had a season high 34 saves for the 6-4 Gophers in their 4-1 win over the Badgers Saturday night. Minnesota is 11-4-1 in its last 16 games against border rival Wisconsin.

The latest issue of Sports Illustrated includes a photo and Faces in the Crowd story on Hopkins senior basketball star Maya Nnaji who will play next year for Arizona, becoming the highest ranked Wildcat in women’s program history, per the magazine.

Twins radio voice Cory Provus will do Big Ten Network men’s basketball play-by-play this season.

The Twins have two free agents in pitcher Michael Pineda and shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Wager on a Pineda return, but not Simmons.

Wonder if the Twins have interest in a short term contract for former Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander? He will be 39 by Opening Day and has missed almost the last two seasons because of an injured elbow but maybe there is something “left in the tank” of the free agent right hander.

Skyline Division leader Bethel hosts Northwoods Division leader Saint John’s on Saturday for the MIAC football championship. The winner receives the MIAC’s automatic qualifier to the NCAA Division III playoffs. The Johnnies won the regular-season game between the two traditional powers, 31-25.

Football rosters for the annual Minnesota High School All-Star Game (December 4, U.S. Bank Stadium) will be announced Friday on Randy Shaver’s Prep Sports Extra show on KARE 11.

The November 11 CORES luncheon and program at the Bloomington Event Center is cancelled. The next CORES program will be January 13.

 

No Forgetting This U Offensive Line

November 03, 2021 - (0) comments

 

Barry Mayer admires the University of Minnesota’s 2021 offensive line. Mayer emailed a certain scribe and suggested the O-line is so effective I could run behind it for more than 100 yards per game.

Then during last Saturday’s game against Northwestern, Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan ran 18 yards for a touchdown. The redshirt senior seldom carries the ball and he is not known for his speed, elusiveness or power.

“I rest my case,” Mayer wrote after Morgan’s score.

Mayer, the Fargo Flash, led the Gophers in rushing during the 1968 and 1969 seasons. This season he’s seen injuries sideline three of Minnesota’s top tailbacks, including All-American Mo Ibrahim who was lost in the opening game. Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams are all out for the remaining schedule of four games but the run-offense continues to roll with Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving. Both rushed for more than 100 yards in the Northwestern win.

The running backs roster is talented, but success starts up front with one of the best Gopher offensive lines in 50 years. Minnesota, with its total of 1,178 rushing yards, ranks second in the Big Ten to Michigan and No. 15 nationally. After five conference games the 4-1 Gophers are alone in first place in the Big Ten West Division.

“I’ve told our football team some of our best players are our offensive linemen. You’ve got to build around your best players,” head coach P.J. Fleck said Monday, while wondering what things might look like with a full roster of running backs.

Gopher historians will remember the names of these O-linemen because they have played a lot of winning football at the U. Starters Sam Schlueter, left tackle; Connor Olson, left guard; John Michael Schmitz, center; Blaise Andries, right guard; and Daniel Faalele, right tackle. All are redshirt seniors, except redshirt junior Faalele.

Behind those five are other valued contributors who give the Gophers depth and extra muscle when Minnesota chooses to use more than five offensive linemen on selected plays. That’s a formidable scheme using seven or eight experienced heavyweights, weighing 300 or more pounds.

With over 190 combined career starts, Minnesota’s line is the most experienced among FBS teams in the nation. Overall, the Gophers have one of the deepest offensive lines in the country with 13 players having appeared in at least one college game and 10 starting one game or more.

Nowhere are the Gophers bigger than on the right side with the 6-6, 325 pound Andries and the 6-9, 380-pound Faalele. They, along with Schmitz, figure to be three Gopher linemen receiving a lot of attention leading up to the 2022 NFL Draft.

Minnesota hasn’t had an offensive lineman drafted in 15 years. “That’s all going to change this year,” Fleck said.

The coach frequently refers to Minnesota as a developmental program. Fleck and the staff take players (mostly three-star recruits, not four and five) through stages of progress. “He’s a great teacher,” former Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo said on the Big Ten Network.

Fleck’s enthusiasm is evident when he talks about redshirt backup offensive lineman Axel Ruschmeyer, referring to him as “maybe one of the most improved football players on our entire team.” The coach describes Ruschmeyer as a “gym rat,” a self-made player who is one of the strongest Gophers.

P.J. Fleck

With the intricacies of playing in the offensive line, things don’t work when guys dislike one another. Fleck’s group doesn’t have that issue. They have been through challenges and experiences together including the pandemic, injuries, and close wins and losses on the field. Their chemistry with one another is authentic.

“They’re incredibly close (to one another),” Fleck said. “They hang out with each other off the field, and I think they’re setting an example and a precedent of what it means to be an offensive lineman here at the University of Minnesota.”

In Fleck’s first spring of 2017 he had only four healthy offensive linemen for him and his staff to work with. He’s watched the numbers grow and the level of play trend to new heights. His admiration for the 2021 edition is evident and it goes beyond football.

“They’re incredible people,” Fleck said. “They’re going to be doctors. They’re going to be actuaries. There are going to be lawyers, teachers. They’re going to be incredible husbands and fathers. It’s a really fun group.”

A talented and experienced offensive line allows Fleck, and his offensive coaches including much praised O-line coach and run-game coordinator Brian Callahan, to play what some observers call “Tressel Ball.” When Jim Tressel was head coach at Ohio State he won six Big Ten championships and the 2002 national championship with a conservative approach that emphasized running the football, along with strong defense, special teams and field position.

Fleck was a grad assistant for Tressel at Ohio State during the national title season. He described Tressel as one of the most influential people in his life. Much of Fleck’s philosophy about how to run a program and how to command a game on Saturday comes from his mentor, now president of Youngstown State.

The two remain close and Fleck is grateful for the relationship. “I get a text from him after every game,” Fleck said.

 

Vikings Hit by ‘Halloween Storm 2″

November 01, 2021 - (0) comments

 

Oh, my!

An hour or so prior to kickoff last night came the news Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, a potential NFL MVP candidate, wouldn’t play because of his injured calf. Former Viking Matt Birk told Viking Land via KFXN radio: “Looks like Christmas came on Halloween.”

Not so fast, Birkie.

The Cowboys tried to gift the Vikes a win but at the end of the evening it was Minnesota’s generosity that made the loudest impact. Late in the fourth quarter, with the game tied at 13-13, the Cowboys committed three personal fouls on a Viking drive. Minnesota was first and goal on the Dallas four-yard line. America’s team pushed the Vikings backward and Minnesota had to settle for a 24-yard Greg Joseph field goal and a 16-13 lead with 2:51 to play.

The Cowboys responded with their own drive but it looked like they would have to settle for a game tying field goal attempt when Dallas had a third down and 16 yards to go. Coach Mike Zimmer, though, tried to call consecutive timeouts and that’s not allowed, resulting in a five-yard penalty. On third and 11, substitute QB Cooper Rush passed to Ezekiel Elliott who ran to the Minnesota four-yard line and a first down. On the next play Rush—who before Sunday had completed one pass in three attempts since entering the NFL in 2017—passed for the winning touchdown to Dallas WR Amari Cooper.

The game was almost a must-have for the struggling Vikings who are in a tough stretch in the schedule and own a 3-4 record. The expectation was for Minnesota to win a statement game against a quality 5-1 opponent—coming off a bye week, playing at home before a national TV audience, and not having to face Prescott. Instead, it was a “train wreck” for the Purple on a night marking the 30th anniversary of the lethal Halloween snow storm of 1991 that paralyzed the twin towns.

Last night it was the Vikings’ offense that looked “paralyzed.” After an opening first quarter drive of 75 yards and a touchdown, the Vikings never saw the end zone again. The Vikings couldn’t or wouldn’t attack deep with the pass game, as they had in their opening series. They were awful on third downs, converting once in 13 attempts.

Kirk Cousins

Rush threw for 341 net yards and two scores. Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins had 177 net yards passing and a first quarter TD throw to Adam Thielen. Dallas controlled the Vikings’ running game, too, holding Minnesota to 101 net yards.

Zimmer dialed up plenty of blitzes in the first half to confuse the inexperienced Rush. It worked well enough for Minnesota to hold a 10-3 halftime lead but in the second half Rush led Dallas to 17 points.

On the winning drive Rush got things started with a 33-yard pass to Cooper, who made a SportsCenter worthy catch. He beat Vikings cornerback Bashaud Breeland to make the grab. Cornerbacks Cameron Dantzler and Mackensie Alexander also had difficult moments as the Vikings played without their best man at that position, the injured Patrick Peterson.

The offense stalled last night but the defense can’t brag either. There wasn’t much pressure on Rush in the second half. Then, as has happened earlier in the schedule, the defense couldn’t make the game-deciding plays on the Cowboys’ last possession.

The Halloween embarrassment looks haunting for the Vikings who have lost four games by a total of 15 points. Ahead immediately on the schedule are road games against the 5-2 Ravens and 4-3 Chargers, then a November 21 home date with the 7-1 Packers.

After the game Zimmer was asked on KFXN how his team gets better.  Zimmer said, “Well we gotta start with me and then we’ll try to get better with the players and the techniques and the fundamentals.”

Worth Noting

Retired Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson, who received his Pro Football Hall of Fame ring during halftime of last night’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium, turns 44 years old today. That’s the same age as GOAT quarterback Tom Brady of the 2021 Super Bowl winning Bucs who was a co-captain with Hutchinson at Michigan.

P.J. Fleck said today tailback Bryce Williams suffered a season-ending injury in Saturday’s game, further depleting running back depth. The coaching staff is sorting through the roster, the coach said, for players who have past running back experience to provide depth behind Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving, who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week today after he rushed 19 times for a career-high 110 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern.

Derik LeCaptain, the Gophers’ redshirt sophomore linebacker pressed into service at running back because of injuries to three other tailbacks, ran for 5,199 yards and 100 touchdowns at Southern Door High School in Wisconsin. He looked impressive making his first college touchdown run last Saturday in Minnesota’s win over Northwestern.

Major League Baseball, with its grueling and long schedule, might be a young man’s game but fact is World Series managers Dusty Baker, 72, and Brian Snitker, 66, guided the Astros and Braves to AL and NL championships. Tony La Russa, 77, came out of retirement to manage the 2021 White Sox to the AL Central title.

The Capital Club hears from Timberwolves coach Chris Finch Wednesday morning at Mendakota Country Club. More information is available from Patrick@aglilemarketingco.com.

Veteran Wolves guard Patrick Beverley is questionable for tonight’s home game against the Magic because of a sore left calf.

A feature story in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated details how Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns dealt with the trauma of losing seven family members to COVID-19 including his mom.

That story is part of the magazine’s basketball preview that predicts the Wolves will finish fourth in the Northwest Division and miss the playoffs. Minnesota natives Chet Holmgren and Paige Bueckers lead talented teams at Gonzaga and Connecticut that are S.I.’s choices for preseason No. 1 in men’s and women’s college basketball.

Big Brother, bigger money: Tyus Jones earns $8,376,286 in salary this season playing with the Grizzlies, while younger bro Tre Jones makes $1,517,981 with the Spurs, per ESPN.com.

Another Apple Valley High alum, Gary Trent Jr., earns $16 million this season, according to ESPN.

Their college mentor, legendary Mike Krzyzweski, is starting his last season as Duke coach, and for the final Blue Devils home game next winter a fan is paying $1 million for four tickets.

Local author Stew Thornley, who has written more than 40 books and is also an official scorer for the Timberwolves and Twins, speaks to the CORES luncheon group November 11 at the Bloomington Event Center. For more information about the luncheon and program, contact Jim Dotseth, dotsethj@comcast.net. Reservations must be made by November 8. CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans.

CORES host Dick Jonckowski emcees the Minnesota State High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame and Awards banquet November 13 at the Omni Hotel in Eagan.

The Wild sees a familiar face Sunday at home against the Islanders with a homecoming for Minneapolis native Zach Parise who is Minnesota’s third all-time leader in goals and scoring.  Parise signed with the Islanders during the summer.

The Twin Cities Dunkers were recently entertained by a panel of Sid Hartman colleagues telling tales about the legendary journalist who passed away a year ago. Patrick Reusse frequented the same Golden Valley grocery store as the usually impatient Sid. One day a store employee informed Reusse she had just waited on his friend. Reusse asked if Sid was nice to her. “No, he told me to hurry up,” she replied.

Circle the date, wrestling fans: Led by Olympic gold medalist Gable Steveson, Minnesota is at top ranked Iowa on January 7 in a power matchup televised by BTN.

According to InterMat, the Big Ten has 10 teams ranked in the top 25, starting with defending national champion Iowa. The others: No. 2 Penn State, No. 5 Michigan, No. 9 Ohio State, No. 10 Minnesota, No. 13 Northwestern, No. 14 Rutgers, No. 16 Nebraska, No. 21 Illinois and No. 23 Wisconsin.

Among Minnesota golf clubs still open is the new Beatles-themed Montgomery National Golf Club in Le Sueur County.

 

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