Gophers Score Early, Often, Get Weekend Sweep of Spartans

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By Paul Cicmil
October 13, 2012
GAMEDAY GOLD

Minneapolis – On Saturday night at Mariucci Arena, the Minnesota Golden Gopher men’s hockey team completed the weekend sweep of the Michigan State Spartans with a convincing 7-1 victory.

Unlike Friday night, Michigan State had an encouraging start, forcing a turnover by Minnesota wing Christian Isackson near his own blueline, 55 seconds in, and getting a Grade A scoring chance by Matt Berry off the resulting odd-man rush. Unfortunately for the Spartans, Gopher freshman goaltender Adam Wilcox, in his first career start, neatly flashed his glove and snared Berry’s wrist shot from the top of the right circle.

From there, it was all downhill for the Spartans, as the host Gophers potted four first period goals and didn’t take their foot off the gas until they had scored a touchdown’s worth of goals by the end of 60 minutes.

Pacing the Gopher’s offensive onslaught were Erik Haula (G,A), Kyle Rau (G,A), Brady Skjei (G,A), Zach Budish (2A), Christian Isackson (2A) and Justin Holl (2A), each with two points.

The evening scoring highlights were Nick Bjugstad’s second goal of the season, just over five minutes into the game, off a beautiful play by sophomore left-winger Rau, that staked the Gophers to a 2-0 lead, and junior winger Tom Serratore’s first of the campaign, which resulted from the hard work of defenseman-elevated-to-wing Holl and freshman center Ryan Reilly and upped the Gopher first period lead to 3-0. Skjei’s power-play goal, on a slapshot from the right point at 15:42 of the third period, was the freshman defenseman’s first of the season and closed out the scoring parade for the Maroon and Gold.

On Bjugstad’s goal, Rau skated high in the offensive zone and had an open lane to the net, but he unselfishly passed up a scoring chance and fed his All-American linemate for an easy tap-in down low, past the helpless Spartan netminder Will Yanakeff. Serratore’s marker, at 7:19, exactly two minutes after Bjugstad’s, was a collective effort of the fourth line. Reilly drove down the right wing into the offensive zone, threw a centering pass to Holl in front of the net, and Serratore cashed in Holl’s rebound from the top of the crease.

Like his teammate Mike Shibrowski did on Friday night, Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox allowed Michigan State to score only once — Brent Darnell at 2:05 of the third period—and made 10 saves to get his first win in a Golden Gopher uniform. State’s Yanakeff gave up the first six Minnesota goals before being replaced by freshman Jake Hildebrand at the start of the third period. Yanakeff made 18 saves and took the loss to go 0-2. Hildebrand stopped 9 shots and gave up one goal in twenty minutes of action.

With consecutive wins over the Spartans, the Golden Gophers claimed the Mariucci-Bessone trophy, named for respective Minnesota and Michigan State coaching legends John Mariucci and Amo Bessone, and presented to the victor of the yearly MN/MSU series.

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Gophers Defeat Spartans in Regular Season Home Opener

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By Paul Cicmil
October 14, 2012
GAMEDAY GOLD

Minneapolis – Minnesota started fast and scored three first period goals en route to a 5-1 victory over future Big 10 Conference opponent Michigan State in men’s college hockey.

In Friday night’s regular season kick-off at Mariucci Arena, the Golden Gophers offensive attack was paced by two point nights from junior forwards Nick Bjugstad (1G, 1A) and Zach Budish (2A) and freshman defenseman Mike Reilly (2A). Pitching in with one goal apiece were defenseman Ben Marshall and forwards Erik Haula, Travis Boyd — on a third period power play — and Christian Isackson.

Michigan State’s lone goal scorer was sophomore wing Tanner Sorenson, whose even-strength tally at 15:59 of the third period averted the shutout.

Junior goaltender Mike Shibrowski played well in his first career regular season start for the host Gophers, giving up only the late third period goal and making 25 saves to get the win. In a losing cause, Spartans’ goalie Will Yanakeff finished with 37 saves.

Marshall opened the scoring for Minnesota, at 4:27 of period one, on a slapshot from just inside the far blueline, off a rink wide pass from Budish. Then a little over 2 minutes later, at 6:40, Florida Panthers’ draftee Bjugstad scored his first of the season, on a low wrist shot from the bottom of the left circle, care of freshman defenseman Reilly’s first career assist.

The play initiated in the neutral zone, with Reilly exiting the penalty box after serving 2 minutes for Interference, and resulted in a 2-on-1 break, which Bjugstad converted. In Bjugstad’s words, “…it was a good pass by him, and I just kinda put it on net. I didn’t have much time. That guy was on me. Luckily, he (Reilly) was coming out of the box, and it was a good little break for all of us.”

Isackson capped the initial stanza with his first career goal at 13:38. The Gophers entered the Spartans’ zone with numbers, and Bjugstad, cruising down the right side, found his sophomore linemate trailing the play in the high slot. Isackson beat netminder Yanakeff with a wrister from 15 feet, and it was 3-0 in favor of the hosts.

In his post-game comments, Minnesota Head Coach Don Lucia said Isackson “…shows that he belongs, to play with that group, which gives us some more balance throughout our lineup.”

Late in the second period, junior center and 2011-12 points leader Erik Haula upped Minnesota’s lead to 4-0 with a workmanlike effort at the 17:46 mark. Haula freed the puck off the end boards in traffic and then drove to the front of the net. Yanakeff stopped Haula’s first forehand attempt, but not the second, from the top of the goal crease, 5 feet out. Right winger/team captain Budish and defenseman Reilly earned assists on the play, completing their respective multiple point contributions on this evening.

Rounding out the scoring for the Gophers was Boyd’s man advantage goal, off a scramble in front of Yanakeff, at 11:30 of the final period. Both of the sophomore center’s linemates — Seth Ambroz and Nate Condon — picked up assists, meaning that each player on Minnesota’s top three lines contributed at least one point in Friday’s home opener.

Quick Hits
— On Friday night, Minnesota outshot Michigan State to the tune of 42-26

— Face-off wins were 32-30 in favor of Michigan State

— Minnesota was 1-2 on the power play; MSU was 0-3

— Per MN Head Coach Don Lucia, freshman Adam Wilcox (#32) will start in goal on
Saturday night for the Gophers.

— Start time for Saturday night’s game is 8 p.m. (Central).

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The Coach and Dr. Football Predictions

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By Scott Taylor and Dave Petrishen
October 12, 2012
GAMEDAY GOLD

TAMPA — We did not plan for the comeback. We did not consider Tennessee’s historical homefield advantage. We did not plan for Matt Hasselbeck to hit Kenny Britt on a five-yard dart for a touchdown with 4:19 left to play to tie Thursday night’s game at 23-23 and we did not plan for Rod Bironas to kick his fourth field goal of the night, a 40-yarder with no time left, to lead the Tennessee Titans to a 26-23 upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Then again, we are aware that those types of outcomes are the nature of the beast.

Prognostication is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an exact science, but of course you already know that. Taking into consideration that a bad team was going to beat what most of us believed was a good team, is not something we had allowed ourselves to believe. Especially not when making our final decision as to the outcome of Thursday night’s Week 6 opener between Pittsburgh and Tennessee — as you can tell by the following rationalization for selecting the Steelers and the points:

“Conventional wisdom might say that if Minnesota can score 30 points on an awful Titans team, what could the Steelers do? Not so fast…the Steelers have given up 65 points in their two losses so far this season, and are 2-7 all time on Tennessee soil. Rashard Mendenhall’s return didn’t create the spark that was expected last week, but look for more this week as Big Ben will toss a ton of work his way. The Coach says, ‘Just throw the freakin’ ball Ben.'”

Dr. Football and The Coach were not totally convinced that the Steelers would beat the Titans but they reluctantly took Pittsburgh to win. Doc didn’t believe the Steelers would cover and he was right about that. The Coach, on the other hand, got stars in his eyes when he saw Ben Roethlisberger at the controls and just couldn’t help himself. As a result, we head into Sunday with both men down 0-1 straight up and The Coach down 0-1 against the spread as well.

But The Coach and The Doc are undeterred. After all, we can come back just like the Titans.

The Doc went 12-3 straight up last week (43-34) and was also a stronger 9-5 against the spread (27-50). The Coach, meanwhile, continued to sizzle. He went 11-3 straight up (47-30) and 8-6 (34-43) against the spread and is, once again, ready to rip it up this week.
As usual, Dr. Football writes our rationalizations while The Coach does what he does best, sits back and makes sarcastic remarks.

Here’s a close look Week 6 in the NFL:

SUNDAY AFTERNOON:
Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) at Cleveland Browns (0-5)
Line: Bengals by 1.
Slight advantage in my opinion to the home team as they get top CB Joe Haden back from suspension, look for him to neutralize A.J. Green. You can’t expect the Browns to go 0-16 do you? The Coach says, “Oh, yes, yes you can.”
THE DOC: TAKE THE BROWNS IN AN UPSET.
THE COACH: TAKE THE BENGALS TO WIN AND COVER.

Indianapolis Colts (2-2) at New York Jets (2-3)
Line: Jets by 3.
The Colts are coming off that emotional “win for Chuck” at home behind the strong performances of Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne, but I don’t think that warm fuzzy feeling will play well in New Jersey. The struggling Jets offense is sticking with QB Mark Sanchez for now. I think the Jets are in disarray, but they will pull off a win at home. The Coach says: “This could be Mark Sanchez’s last stand.”
THE DOC: TAKE THE JETS TO WIN AND COVER.
THE COACH: TAKE THE JETS TO WIN AND COVER.

Kansas City Chiefs (1-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-3)
Line: Buccaneers by 4.
According to the Chiefs O-lineman Erik Winston, the fans cheering was “sickening” when Matt Cassel was knocked out of last week’s game with a concussion. Maybe Erik can spend less time in front of the press, and more time in front of his quarterback…just sayin’…and that quarterback will be Brady Quinn, getting his first start since 2009. Both teams are lousy, but one is refreshed coming off a bye week and at home, but not by much. The Coach says, “Do you have a clothespin? I need to put something on my nose.”
THE DOC: TAKE THE BUCS TO WIN BUT NOT COVER.
THE COACH: TAKE THE BUCS (reluctantly) TO WIN AND COVER.

Oakland Raiders (1-3) at Atlanta Falcons (5-0)
Line: Falcons by 9.
The unbeaten Falcons are 27-0 when Matt Ryan has a 100 passer rating, and Ryan should go wild against the Raiders defense that is allowing a 71.5 completion percentage. The Falcons have also won six straight at home, and Oakland are 0-2 on road so far and have been beaten by a combined 72-19 score. No brainer. The Coach says, “This outcome might be unsuitable for younger children.”
THE DOC: TAKE THE FALCONS TO WIN AND COVER.
THE COACH: TAKE THE FALCONS TO WIN AND COVER.

Dallas Cowboys (2-2) at Baltimore Ravens (4-1)
Line: Ravens by 3.5.
The Cowboys and Tony Romo had the bye week to dwell on his five interception Monday nighter against Chicago. Things won’t be any easier for on the road for Romo against Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata and the rest of the Ravens. The Coach says: “Tony Romo will be pressured, he will panic and once again, he will go fetal.”
THE DOC: TAKE THE RAVENS TO WIN AND COVER.
THE COACH: TAKE THE RAVENS TO WIN AND COVER.

Detroit Lions (1-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (3-2)
Line: Eagles by 3.5.
The Eagles have been squeaking out victories this season, while the Lions have just been unable to find their roar. Detroit is on a 1-6 skid on the road, allowing 36.6 points per game during that time. The Lions should be rested coming off their bye, and should keep it close, but the Eagles at home with Michael Vick’s ability to win is the difference. The Coach says, “Doc says, knowing I grew up a Lions fan, that he’s ‘sorry’ for taking the Eagles. My friend, betting on football means never having to say you’re sorry.”
THE DOC: TAKE THE EAGLES TO WIN BUT NOT COVER
THE COACH: TAKE THE EAGLES TO WIN AND COVER.

St. Louis Rams (3-2) at Miami Dolphins (2-3)
Line: Dolphins by 3.5.
Interesting matchup with a curious Vegas line. Miami’s run defense is tough and will be able to keep the Rams Steven Jackson in check, and Rams QB Sam Bradford won’t have Danny Amendola as a weapon. The Rams will put pressure on Ryan Tannehill, but Reggie Bush should be able to provide a big ground game for the Fish as he has rushed for 417 yards so far this season. Rams are winless on the road in 2012, and Miami is riding a wave of confidence. The Coach says, “Ryan Tannehill is probably the most unsung of all the rookie quarterbacks this season.”
THE DOC: TAKE THE DOLPHINS TO WIN AND COVER.
THE COACH: TAKE THE DOLPHINS TO WIN AND COVER.

New England Patriots (3-2) at Seattle Seahawks (3-2)
Line: Patriots by 3.5.
Tough game for the Patriots in a tough stadium to win in. The Patriots are bringing their huge offense while the Seahawks defense has been great all season. If the Patriots front seven can hold Marshawn Lynch the Seahawks will be forced to pass, and with the ‘Hawks Russell Wilson tossing more picks than touchdowns so far, the Patriots will come out with the win. The Coach says: “We will find out how good Russell Wilson is this week.”
THE DOC: TAKE THE PATRIOTS TO WIN AND COVER.
THE COACH: TAKE THE PATRIOTS TO WIN AND COVER.

Buffalo Bills (2-3) at Arizona Cardinals (4-1)
Line: Cardinals by 4.5.
The Bills have been getting slaughtered the past two weeks, losing to San Francisco 45–3 after taking a 52–28 defeat against New England, and in the process their defense has allowed 1,201 yards…the most by any team over a two-game stretch since 1950. The Cardinals have won eight straight at home. Could this be Buffalo coach Chan Gailey’s last game? The Coach says, “When are the Bills moving to Toronto?”
THE DOC: TAKE THE CARDINALS TO WIN AND COVER.
THE COACH: TAKE THE CARDINALS TO WIN AND COVER.

Minnesota Vikings (4-1) at Washington Redskins (2-3)
Line: Redskins by 1.5.
All eyes will be on the status of RG3, who was knocked out of a loss to the Falcons with a “mild” concussion and what appeared to be a few stitches to the face. He’s been taking more shots per game than the average tailgating fan before they get into the stadium! Washington has lost their past eight home games, the Vikings “3 P’s”; Ponder, Petersen, and Percy will make it nine. The Coach says: “The Vikings blasted the Redskins with Joe Webb at quarterback last year. Can a concussed RGIII save them this year?”
THE DOC: TAKE THE VIKINGS IN AN UPSET.
THE COACH: TAKE THE VIKINGS FOR GIGGLES.

New York Giants (3-2) at San Francisco 49ers (4-1)
Line: 49ers by 6.5.
This big rematch of last year’s NFC Championship game should have a better ending for the 49ers. San Fran (despite an early stumble against the Vikings) has been on a mission all year, with a well balanced attack that had them become the first team in NFL history with 300 yards passing and 300 yards rushing in a single game in their blow out win over Buffalo. Their defense is ferocious, and they are out to avenge last season’s disappointing finish. The Coach says: “East Coast to West Coast. Jet (not Jets) lag will kill the Giants.”
THE DOC: TAKE THE 49ers TO WIN AND COVER.
THE COACH: TAKE THE 49ers TO WIN AND COVER.

SUNDAY NIGHT:
Green Bay Packers (2-3) at Houston Texans (5-0)
Line: Texans by 3.5.
This game is a battle of two big offenses and two exciting defenses, however the Packers are floundering and were just handed a devastating loss to the Colts, and lost RB Cedric Benson in the process. Texans Matt Schaub hasn’t seen any real heat so far this season, and this week he will, but he will rely on Adrian Foster to get the job done. Packers sink further into mediocrity. The Coach says, “The Texans will do what they do best: beat another sub-.500 team this week.”
THE DOC: TAKE THE TEXANS TO WIN AND COVER.
THE COACH: TAKE THE TEXANS TO WIN AND COVER.

MONDAY NIGHT:
Denver Broncos (2-3) at San Diego Chargers (3-2)
Line: Chargers by 2.
Both teams are looking to rebound after disappointing losses in week 5. The Broncos were hoping for a close game with the Patriots but it was clear from the beginning that the Patriots were the better squad. The Chargers struggled against the Saints who had been winless. Denver has won two out of the past three in San Diego, and that was before Peyton Manning. Broncos get on track. The Coach says: “John Fox and Peyton Manning vs. Norv Turner and Philip Rivers? I’ll take Fox and Manning every time.”
THE DOC: TAKE THE BRONCOS IN AN UPSET.
THE COACH: TAKE THE BRONCOS TO WIN IN WHAT REALLY ISN’T AN UPSET.

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Gamday Gold’s NFL Top 10 / Matty Ice Putting Opponents in a Deep Freeze

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By Eric Nelson
October 12, 2012
GAMEDAY GOLD

1. Atlanta Falcons (5-0) – There is a good chance Atlanta will stay perfect this week because the Falcons host lowly Oakland (1-3). Matt Ryan is playing like an MVP with 13 touchdown passes, 3 interceptions and a lofty 106.1 quarterback rating. Look for Matty Ice to put up more cartoon-like numbers Sunday, because the Raiders give up an average of 31 points per game…

2. Houston Texans (5-0) – Houston has given up an AFC-low 73 points, but has lost LB Brian Cushing for the season. Cushing tore an ACL in his knee after being cut blocked by NY Jets guard Matt Slauson on Monday night. The NFL fined Slauson $10k for the illegal block. We’ll see how the Texans deal with this huge defensive loss…

3. San Francisco 49ers (4-1) – San Francisco has been dominant the last two weeks, crushing the NY Jets 34-0 and battering Buffalo 45-3. The 49ers racked up a franchise record 621 yards against the Bills. This week at Candlestick it is an NFC Championship game rematch with the NY Giants. The 49ers are hoping for a better result this time…

4. Chicago Bears (4-1) – The Bears defensive performance in their last two games would make Mike Singletary , Richard Dent , Dan Hampton and other members of Chicago’s Super Bowl XX championship team proud. Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman both had pick six touchdowns in the Bears wins at Dallas and Jacksonville. Briggs and Tillman are the first teammates to have interception TD returns in back-to-back games in NFL history…

5. Baltimore Ravens (4-1) – Now that the Orioles have been eliminated from the ALDS, the Ravens no longer share the Baltimore spotlight. It is a Super Bowl or bust mindset along the Chesapeake this season. The Ravens believe their time is now…

6. New England Patriots (3-2) – New England makes the four time zone, cross country trip to Seattle this week. The always energetic Pete Carroll is a former Patriots coach. Carroll will be more pumped up than normal as his Seahawks try to spring an upset on the Pats…

7. Minnesota Vikings (4-1) – Minnesota already has won more games in 2012 (4) than in all of 2011 (3). The Vikings are clicking in all phases – offense, defense and special teams. Minnesota has allowed just 33 points in its last three games. This week the Purple will try and bottle up Washington’s multi-talented QB Robert Griffin III at FedEx Field…

8. New York Giants (3-2) – San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is furious that Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride took some verbal shots at DE Justin Smith . The odds of Harbaugh and Gilbride shaking hands after the game are about the same as Joe Biden and Paul Ryan doing lunch together in D.C…

9. Arizona Cardinals (4-1) – Arizona is winning, but not scoring. The Cardinals have just 94 points in five games and they rely on a lights out defense. QB Kevin Kolb was a human pinata last week against St. Louis as he was sacked nine times and banged on constantly by the Rams. Arizona’s next opponent – Buffalo – could be the cure for its sputtering offense. The Bills have given up 52 and 45 points in their last two losses to New England and San Francisco…

10. Seattle Seahawks (3-2) – Marshawn Lynch leads the NFC in rushing with 508 yards. On the flip side, quarterback Russell Wilson is in a passing rut with just five TD tosses and six interceptions this season…

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This Is “For Real” Week

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By Scott Taylor
October 12, 2012
GAMEDAY GOLD

It happens about this time during every National Football League season.

We’ve seen five weeks of interesting stuff (this year, it was made more interesting with replacement officials). Some teams have surprised us and others have disappointed us and many of the game’s best players have been mediocre-to-awful while some relative unknowns have been terrific. It’s the way of the NFL world through the first five weeks.

However, now we’re heading into the sixth week of the season and it starts to get serious. This is the week we’ll find out if, say, the Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos are as good as (a) some of them look or (b) we think some of them are.

Let’s take a close look at five huge NFL games this week. These games will have us calling some teams “for real,” and others just mediocre at best – and gawd-awful at worst:

Dallas at Baltimore: We know how good the Ravens are, even though they barely snuck past wonky Kansas City by a 9-6 score last week. Baltimore is still 4-1 and one of the best teams in the AFC. This week they have a rare meeting with “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys. And this will be a real test for the ‘Boys. Dallas is 2-2 and after a big win in Week 1 have looked about as inconsistent as any team that has an owner-who-wants-to-be-a-GM can be. After a bye last week, they’re coming off a 34-18 shellacking at the hands of the Chicago Bears and they’re on the road against a team that has won 13 consecutive games at home, the longest current home winning streak in the NFL. Ravens QB Joe Flacco is 8-0 at home against NFC competition. This game will tell us if the Cowboys are a contender or a pretender – very tough competition (the Ravens are 3-0 against Dallas in their rare series meetings) against a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations on the road against an extremely good home team.

Detroit at Philadelphia: Both of these teams are still enigmatic. Detroit is 1-3, coming off a bye, and if the Lions intend to be a playoff-bound team again, they almost have to win this week. The Lions lost their last outing, 20-13 at home to Minnesota (and we aren’t even certain Minnesota is any good yet), and they face a team that has beaten them in five straight games. Granted, these are both different teams and at some point, Matthew Stafford is going to put up big numbers, but we haven’t seen it yet and this will be a real test for the Lions young defense, shaky special teams and inconsistent offense. The Eagles meanwhile have been very fortunate to get to 3-2 this season. One suspects, however, that if Vick protects the football and his two big weapons, DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy have big games, the Lions will be in trouble. We’ll find out this week if either one of these teams is ready to make some noise in the NFC.

Minnesota at Washington: This is the week we’ll find out if the 4-1 Vikings are “for real” or not. They have beaten San Francisco and Detroit along with Jacksonville and Tennessee and lost on the road to Indianapolis. The wins over the Niners and Lions were impressive but they should have won in Indy and choked. Quarterback Christian Ponder ranks second in the NFL with a 69.0 completion percentage and is looking for his fourth win in a row as a starter. Washington, meanwhile, will try to go with the concussed Robert Griffin III at quarterback and while they are 2-3, they’ve looked better than a 2-3 team on a couple of occasions. The last time these two clubs met, last Christmas Eve, Joe Webb shredded the ‘Skins defense in a 33-26 Vikings win (Toby Gerhart had 109 yards rushing). If Ponder does the same, the Vikes will be 5-1 and we’ll be calling them “the real deal.”

Buffalo at Arizona: The Cardinals are 4-1 while the Bills are 2-3 and have given up a load of points – second worst to Tennessee in the AFC at 176 in five games. However, the Bills have won four of the past five meetings against Arizona and both teams are coming off big losses. Buffalo as eviscerated 45-3 by San Francisco while Arizona lost 17-3 in St. Louis. However, the Cardinals are 11-3 in their past 14 and have won eight in a row at home. Those are telling numbers. If Kevin Kolb, who is looking for his third straight win against the AFC, can find Larry Fitzgerald against that porous Bills secondary, Arizona could blow out the Bills, get to 5-1 and join Minnesota as an unexpected real deal.

Denver at San Diego: This game should tell us a lot about Peyton Manning and where he is on the comeback trail. It will also tell us a lot about the Broncos inconsistent defense. The Broncos, under Manning’s leadership, are 2-3, but have a plus-21 points differential. Now, to be fair, they have a killer schedule. They lost 27-21 to unbeaten Atlanta, 31-25 to unbeaten Houston (maybe the best team in the NFL) and 31-21 to 4-1 New England. They’ve beaten Pittsburgh 31-19 and whipped Oakland 37-6. Now it’s time to beat a team within its division that is at about the same talent and development level. This is an even match up against a 3-2 Chargers club that averages 24.8 points per game and is 23rd in per-game total yardage and 19th in per game passing yardage. The winner of this game will be considered a legitimate contender. The loser will remain “just another football team.” It’s also a battle of John Fox vs. Norv Turner and Peyton Manning vs. Philip Rivers and somehow, I like the Fox-Manning tandem a whole lot more.

This week, eight NFL teams will either make the jump to “for real” status or remain just another of 32 teams in the NFL.

The Cowboys, Lions, Chargers, Broncos, Vikings, Cardinals, Redskins and Eagles will all have an opportunity to make a statement this week. The ones who do will jump into NFL Elite status.

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At 4-1, Vikings among NFL’s best

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By Larry Fitzgerald
October 11, 2012
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Five weeks into the season, the 2012 Vikings remain one of the surprise stories in the NFL. Last year the Vikings, 3-13, lost several games in which they blew early leads and made mistakes that cost them. So far in 2012, Head Coach Leslie Frazier has a team that has bought into his quiet, respectful approach to coaching. One of the biggest misconceptions about the Vikings is that they were so bad last year because they lacked talent. Not in the NFL — this team is loaded with talent. The salary cap forces that, and this coaching staff has got them as a team playing together at a high level.

Are the Vikings a product of a fifth-place schedule? It’s too early for that answer. They have beaten two teams, San Francisco and Detroit, that were playoff teams in 2011. And they have beaten Jacksonville and Tennessee, a couple of non-playoff teams. They are 3-0 at home. Last year they were just 1-7, so they have established themselves as a good football team. That’s all that matters.

Percy Harvin, the gifted fourth-year receiver from Florida, has been special. He is among the league’s top receivers with 38 catches for 407 yards and has rushed for 62 yards. He returned a kickoff for 105 yards and scored a touchdown in the win at Detroit. His combined 820 yards are tops in the NFL. Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. of the Arizona Cardinals says, “Harvin is the most dynamic, explosive player in the league.” Sunday Harvin scored two touchdowns and grabbed eight passes for 108 yards.

The Vikings dominated the Tennessee Titans, scoring a season-high 30 points in the 30-7 win. Believe it or not, the Vikings are tied for first place in the NFC North with the Chicago Bears at 4-1. And Green Bay (2-3) and Detroit (1-3) have their own problems to deal with. So far the Vikings have been solid in all areas — offense, defense, special teams. They are winning the field-position game, which is grossly underrated, but rookie kicker Blair Walsh has been remarkable. He has made 12 of 13 field goals, including a game-winner over Jacksonville in overtime. He has 22 touchbacks already; the Vikings had 19 all of last year.

Chris Kluwe is one of the game’s most consistent punters. I told you about Harvin on kick returns. Marcus Sherels from Minnesota has a 77-yard punt return and averages 14.9 per return. The Vikings are stopping the run, getting leads, putting pressure on quarterbacks. Quarterback Christian Ponder is playing lights out, doing the job very well, having thrown for 1,082 yards with a QB rating of 95.5. His top targets are Harvin and tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has four touchdown receptions already.

From a leadership standpoint, Frazier is beginning to look like Tony Dungy. Dungy did the same thing in Tampa Bay: He had a couple of rough years getting his system in place and getting the players to buy in, and then suddenly his teams started winning consistently. But the biggest reason the Vikings are winning is Adrian Peterson. He’s back in a big way — 420 yards rushing, 4.4 yards per carry. Defenses have to be honest and respect his breakaway ability every play.

The Vikings are rushing their opponents by 666 yards to 393. That means they are running and they are stopping the run and not turning it over. That’s why the Vikings are 4-1 — they are a good team.

Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to info@lar ry-fitzgerald.com, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.

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SPORTS NUGGETS: Minnesota Lynx looking for a championship sequel

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By Eric Nelson
October 10, 2012
GAMEDAY GOLD

MINNEAPOLIS – Sports Nuggets from the Land of Lynx…

• Getting to the mountain top in sports is challenging, but staying there is more difficult. The Minnesota Lynx reached the WNBA summit in 2011, when they won the franchise’s first-ever title. The Lynx like the view from the top so much they are back in the WNBA Finals, looking to repeat. Game 1 of their series is Sunday night in Minneapolis against Connecticut or Indiana…

• If the Lynx produce a championship sequel, it could be the start of a dynasty. This team has star-power and a knack for playing cohesive, fundamentally sound basketball. Another crown would be impressive, because the team that plays at Target Center has had a target on its back all season…

• ABC/ESPN broadcaster Rebecca Lobo gave some major props to Minnesota guard Maya Moore , who has won titles in the NCAA and WNBA, and also collected a gold medal at the London Olympics. “She’s a winner and she’s been a winner her whole life, from the time she was in high school on,” said Lobo, who played at UConn and for the WNBA’s New York Liberty. “Part of that is because she is so talented and makes her teams better. She just clearly has a confidence about her game. She is just one of those special players and Minnesota is fortunate to have her – especially when they have Seimone Augustus on the other side. It’s unenviable for any coach on the other side trying to figure out how to game plan defensively against Minnesota…”

• The Minnesota Vikings will try to solve the quarterback puzzle known as Robert Griffin III this week when they play the Washington Redskins in suburban D.C. Vikings cornerback Chris Cook is well aware of the challenge the multi-dimensional RG III presents for a defense. “He’s a versatile guy,” Cook said. “He can run and pass. He probably runs better than he passes, but he’s a great passer. He can make any throw. As a db it presents a challenge because once he starts scrambling outside of the pocket you kind of have the tendency to come up and tackle him and make a play. But you can’t really do that, you have to stay with the receiver because he can scramble outside of the pocket and still make throws down the field…”

• Vikings’ LB Erin Henderson is from Aberdeen, Md., which is not too far from FedEx Field in Landover – the home of the Redskins. This weeks Minnesota-Washington game is a homecoming for Henderson, who grew up rooting for the Baltimore Orioles, and believe it or not, the Green Bay Packers. Henderson’s favorite players were Brett Favre and Cal Ripken Jr. Apparently Henderson liked durable athletes…

• The best division in the NFL is the NFC West, where every team is above.500. The West is also a smash mouth division. Arizona, San Francisco, St. Louis and Seattle are physical teams who play swarming defense…

• The Dallas Cowboys were once dubbed America’s Team. That moniker clearly does not fit these days. The Cowboys (2-2) aren’t even the top team in Texas. That honor belongs to Houston (5-0), which is one of just two perfect teams left in the NFL. Atlanta (5-0) is the other…

• Kansas City’s reputation as a heartland city with solid, salt-of-the-earth residents has been shattered after Chiefs fans cheered when quarterback Matt Cassel was injured on Sunday against Baltimore. How despicable was it? Even abrasive Philadelphia fanatics thought it was in poor taste…

• Oakland A’s rookie LF Yoenis Cespedes is becoming a cult hero. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the left field bleachers at the Coliseum are known as Little Havana, a tribute to Cespedes Cuban roots…

• The last time there was an MLB postseason game played in Washington D.C., gas was 10 cents a gallon and Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. That was 1933. On Wednesday there was finally another postseason game in the District, as St. Louis waxed Washington 8-0 at Nationals Park to take a 2-1 lead in their best of 5 NLDS. After waiting 79 years for a meaningful October game, D.C. fans had their hopes for a winning day dashed by the World Series champion Cardinals…

• Hard to believe it was 30 years ago when Cheers debuted on NBC. The sitcom began in 1982 and was a smash hit. Cheers starred mythical and washed up Boston Pitcher Sam Malone. The way the Red Sox played this year, Malone could have been part of their rotation…

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Europe Whips U.S. in Ryder Cup

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By Larry Fitzgerald
October 4, 2012
Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

We should have known better than to think that the United States team could wrestle the prized Ryder Cup away from the hungry Europeans. There are losses and there are collapses; what happened at Medina Country Club over the weekend, especially on Sunday, was a collapse.

The United States team, led by Tiger Woods, the world’s number-two player, failed on American soil. Europe used the spirit and motivation of the late great Seve Ballesteros to rally on Sunday and retain the Cup. European Captain Jose Maria Olazabal was real close to Ballesteros.

America has it all — the great riches, the huge advantages like private jets or playing under the best conditions on the most pristine courses — yet we don’t understand what team is all about. The Europeans do; that’s why they have won seven of the last nine Ryder Cups. And they have beaten American teams that had better talent but less character.

Captain Davis Love lost the Ryder Cup because he picked his friends with his captain’s picks and left talented, experienced Hunter Mahan, two-time winner on the PGA this year, off the team for Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker. Hunter had beat Rory McIlroy, the world’s number-one player, in the World Match Play Championship final, but was passed over while Love picked Stricker and Furyk. Every point counts, and the Americans found that out the hard way.

McIlroy barely made his tee time Sunday. An Illinois state trooper rushed him to the course from the hotel when he remembered he was in the Central time zone. That’s embarrassing; however, with no warm up McIlroy whipped his opponent, Keegan Bradley.

You don’t win championships by picking favorites, and that’s what Love did. When it counted the most, Furyk and Stricker failed, 14½ to 13½. Europe dominated in the singles matches on Sunday, trailing 10-6.

They overwhelmed the U.S. in the most critical times, and they did it when it counted the most. The Americans were playing with fool’s gold, patting themselves on the back because they were ahead late Saturday 10-4 and celebrating with the U.S. fans.

Medina was rocking the beverages and spirits were flowing. Everybody was having a good time. It seemed they thought it was over. But somebody long ago said, “It ain’t over until it’s over,” and the talented, hungry, motivated Europeans with fire in their belly suddenly started playing better and making putts.

Medina Country Club and thousands of partisan fans got quiet. The fans started seeing their U.S. heroes fighting to regain the lost momentum. Ian Poulter gave Europe great hope late Saturday by making five straight birdies and winning his match. His fire and great play sparked his team.

The Europeans remembered that the U.S team in 1999 at Brookline rallied from a four-point deficit to win. And Sunday that’s what they did, one player and one match at a time. Six of the 12 matches came to the 18th hole.

The Americans won only one. It was like being in a fight with an opponent and you can’t stop him from hitting you in the mouth, because it hurts. It was painful to watch one match after another close with just two holes left, and Europe won virtually every match by making critical putts.

Americans seem to get ahead of themselves. They like to rub it in your face when they are winning, urging the crowd on and pumping their fists. They forgot golf is a game of etiquette. You must always respect your opponent. To lose like this will haunt the Americans a long time, 8½ points to just 3½. Remember, the next time the Ryder Cup returns to U.S. soil will be at Hazeltine National in Chaska in 2016.

The lesson the Americans must learn is that you can’t buy the Ryder Cup, and whatever it takes, you have to value what it means to win it. Clearly Europe understands what true team support means. That’s why they are the Ryder Cup 2012 Champions.

Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to info@lar ry-fitzgerald.com, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.

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SPORTS NUGGETS: Titanic Win Has Vikings Looking Good

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By Eric Nelson
October 7, 2012
GAMEDAY GOLD

MINNEAPOLIS – Sports Nuggets from the home of Purple power…

  • Break up the Purple. The Minnesota Vikings have morphed into one of the NFL’s most successful teams and are playing with sky-high confidence. On Sunday at Mall of America Field, the Tennessee Titans became another Viking victim, as Minnesota won 30 to 7…
  • The recipe for Viking victory was a heavy dose of Percy Harvin, and lights out defense.
  • Harvin – who is playing MVP-caliber football – ran for a touchdown and also caught a td. Harvin had eight receptions for 108 yards on the day, as Minnesota upped its record to 4-1, remaining tied for first place in the NFC North with Chicago. “He’s amazing..” Vikings wide receiver Devin Aromashodu said of Harvin. “He’s doing everything they ask of a running back, a receiver, kick returns. I mean he’s just playing some phenomenal football right now…”
  • The Minnesota defense is also shining this season. The Vikings have given up only 33 points in their last three games and stuffed the Tennessee running game – limiting the Titans to just 52 yards. RB Chris Johnson was invisible, gaining a meager 24 yards on 15 carries. “Guys are having fun” said Minnesota CB Antoine Winfield. “We don’t lack confidence and we know we can go out there and play…”
  • The Vikings played so well that coach Leslie Frazier even cracked a smile. Frazier is Bud Grant-like in his low-key sideline demeanor…
  • Minnesota rookie safety Harrison Smith will remember the game for all the wrong reasons. Smith was ejected in the second quarter after shoving a referee. Smith – who grew up in Knoxville – certainly had plenty of family and friends watching in Tennessee…
  • NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was at the Titans-Vikings game and actually sat in the Metrodome stands. Hopefully Goodell did not venture into the dome’s cramped and gridlocked councourse because he would have gotten lost…
  • Good thing Goodell was at the Metrodome instead of the Superdome. New Orleans fans are still foaming at the mouth about the suspensions he doled out for bounty-gate. Goodell is about as welcome in the Crescent City as a hurricane…
  • Next up for the Vikings is a game at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. against the Redskins. Washington ((2-3) is coming off a tough 24-17 loss to Atlanta. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III was knocked out of the game early in the third quarter with a mild concussion…
  • One of the top NFL broadcast teams is Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf. The CBS tandem is all football and little ego…
  • False advertising: Carolina center Ryan Kalil took out a full page ad in the Charlotte Observer before the season started, guaranteeing the Panthers would win Super Bowl XLVII. However, Kalil’s bold prediction isn’t looking good. Carolina is 1-4 after a 16-12 loss to Seattle this week…
  • Kalil is the brother of Vikings OT Matt Kalil.
  • There is no joy in Titletown after Green Bay coughed up an 18-point halftime lead in a 30-27 loss at Indianapolis Sunday. The Packers (2-3) do not even remotely resemble last year’s team that blew through the regular season and finished 15-1. According to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, it was the fourth-largest blown lead in Packers history…
  • Kansas City fans reached a new low in their loss to Baltimore. When Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel suffered a head injury in the fourth quarter and left the game, the Arrowhead crowd cheered. Come on KC, you are much better than that. No athlete should have to put up with that garbage…
  • There will be no bowl game for Ohio State this season because of NCAA sanctions, but it is clear new coach Urban Meyer has already put his stamp on the Buckeyes. Ohio State (6-0) is ranked number eight in the nation after a 63-38 pummeling of Nebraska on Saturday night. Quarterback Braxton Miller ran for 185 yards and one td, and also threw for 127 yards and a score…
  • Wake up the echoes. Notre Dame crushed Miami 41-3 in the Shamrock Series at Chicago’s Soldier Field. The seventh ranked Irish are a perfect 5-0 this season and rekindling memories of the Lou Holtz days…
  • Michigan QB Denard Robinson ran for almost an acre in the Wolverines 44-13 win against Purdue. Robinson gained 235 yards, and also threw a touchdown pass in the game…

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Gameday Gold’s NFL Top 10: Falcons go to the Matts for another Win

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By Eric Nelson
October 5, 2012
GAMEDAY GOLD

1. Atlanta Falcons (4-0) – The real Matty Ice last week was Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant , who connected on a 40-yard field goal with 5 seconds to go in a 30-28 win against Carolina. Quarterback Matt Ryan continues to put defenses on ice. Ryan threw three more touchdown passes against the Panthers and has 11 this season – second most in the NFL…

2. Houston Texans (4-0) – Houston has given up an NFL-low 56 points this year, and the Texans next opponent – the NY Jets – got shutout last week. Texans DE J.J. Watt was named AFC defensive player of the month for September. Watt’s stats are sick: 7 1/2 sacks, 32 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 10 qb hurries, five deflected passes and two fumble recoveries. According to the Houston Chronicle, Watt is the first player since Kevin Greene (1998) to have multiple sacks in each of the first four games of a season…

3. San Francisco 49ers (3-1) – The 49ers got back on track last week as they crushed the Jets 34-0 in New Jersey. This week SF hosts Buffalo, and the Bills could pose a challenge to the 49ers defense. Buffalo has scored 16 touchdowns, the most in the NFL…

4. Baltimore Ravens (3-1) The Ravens stingy run defense will be tested Sunday in Kansas City, as they try and slow down Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles. The speedy Charles has run for 411 yards, second best in the NFL. Winning at Arrowhead is never easy…

5. Arizona Cardinals (4-1) – The Cardinals flew back to their old nest Thursday – St. Louis. However, it was not a happy flight as they lost to the Rams 17-3. However, Arizona can feel good about its fast start, especially the play of CB Patrick Peterson

6. Chicago Bears (3-1) – The Bears were bullish on the Cowboys in their 34-18 win on Monday night. Chicago intercepted Dallas quarterback Tony Romo five times. Wideout Brandon Marshall is already paying dividends for the Bears (23 receptions, 352 yards and two touchdowns)…

7. New England Patriots (2-2) – Tom Brady and the Patriots will see an old nemesis this week – Peyton Manning. Of course, Manning is a different horse now – going from the Indianapolis Colts to the Denver Broncos. Historically Brady has had the advantage in match-ups with Manning – winning 10 of 17 games…

8. Minnesota Vikings (3-1) – Percy Harvin is Minnesota’s most multi-dimensional player since the legendary Chuck Foreman. Harvin has done everything but surf Lake Minnetonka this season. The Purple are an early-season NFL success story as they are tied for first place in the NFC North with Chicago…

9. Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) – Statistically Philadelphia is not very impressive. The Eagles are a minus 17 in point differential, and Michael Vick (four td passes and six interceptions) is hardly playing at a Pro Bowl level. However, the NFL is all about results, and the Eagles are on top of the NFC East…

10. New York Giants (2-2) – The Super Bowl champs should get back above sea level this week as they host Cleveland. A loss to the winless Browns would definitely drop NY out of the Top 10 and cause panic in Giants Nation…

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