Wednesday, August 29, 2012

College Football Begins

Thursday is just the beginning.

College football gets underway this weekend, with a bunch of games on Thursday and even more on Saturday.

As you've already seen on the blog, I'm taking part in the BlogPoll once again this year. Thanks to Andy Hutchins and the folks at SBNation for keeping this thing going.

I'm also taking part in a Wisconsin-centric deal with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this season. Every week, the Sentinel's Dave Heller is going to post a roundtable discussion about Badger football. I've agreed to be a part of this for the 2012 season.

You can check this blog to see the posts when they go up.

Once October rolls around, as you're well aware, hockey content ramps up on this site. I'll try to keep going with some football talk, too.

2012 BlogPoll: Week 1

BlogPoll 2012 is underway.

It's become a bit of a tradition for your humble correspondent to cast a vote in this thing every week.

The Week 1 poll is already out, but I figured I'd stick with my "be transparent" rule and post my ballot, even if I voted last week and forgot to post it then.

A few thoughts, in no particular order:
  • Honestly, I wasn't sold on LSU even before the Honey Badger suspension. I don't think that news did anything for me but perhaps swap out LSU and Oklahoma in the poll. But my top two have been my top two for some time.
  • I'm probably too high on the SEC. At least I hope I am. I think it's reasonable to argue that this is correct when assessing the strength of that league, but I expect either Arkansas or South Carolina -- and perhaps both -- will disappoint and not finish terribly close to these spots.
  • I'm confident that Wisconsin is the best team in the Big Ten, but I have no idea what lies below the Badgers. I didn't put Ohio State in here because I do think the Buckeyes will suffer the sting of a postseason ban, combined with the schematic changes that Urban Meyer brings. Michigan and Michigan State are both strong, but I couldn't pick a favorite there if I had to right now.
  • Look out for Texas. Low in this poll, but I think the Longhorns are a darkhorse contender if they can find some more offense. That defense is boss.
  • Hard to say they're "under the radar," but Oklahoma is another team to watch. The Sooners have all the tools to win, but they're forgotten with all the USC/Alabama/SEC hype.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Vikings Sit Starters Thursday

Did you watch the Vikings game against San Diego on Friday night?

It wasn't good.

The Chargers were sitting 18 starters, including a number of their elite defensive players. Most notably, cornerback Quentin Jammer was sidelined. By no means do I think the Chargers are a one- or two-man operation on defense, but one would think so many guys out would give Minnesota an advantage.

Or not.

Christian Ponder was shaky, the running game wasn't sharp without Adrian, and the Vikings lost 12-10. Ponder was hit way too much, and while the Vikings tried to put some of this on him, there's a chunk that has to fall on the linemen, especially Matt Kalil, the rookie who had his share of rough moments in the game.

How does Leslie Frazier respond?

He gives most of his starters the night off for Thursday's game at Houston.

The Star Tribune's Jim Souhan thinks this is a flawed idea.

I just listened to Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave downplay his team's struggles during the Friday night loss to San Diego. He shouldn't be taking this approach. He should be demanding that they play on Thursday until they put together an impressive drive, however long that may take. This is no time to go soft on a young, unproven team coming off an embarrassing performance.

I'm not sure I agree with Souhan, but I do think there's something to be said for reps when you're dealing with so many young players, and so many guys who haven't played together before.

Ponder didn't look good at all Friday. Maybe he would struggle again Thursday, but it's more likely he would play better over one series, and perhaps it would be a necessary jolt of confidence for the second-year signal caller.

Kalil was not good in his first extended action against a 3-4 defense as a pro. There's a chance Kalil would have problems again on Thursday, but he needs reps at this point. He isn't going to become more intimately familiar with the offense while he's standing on the sideline cracking jokes with his teammates.

Yeah, it probably doesn't matter. Minnesota isn't going to be anyone's pick to make the playoffs, even though we all know the average is a six-team turnover from year to year. If anyone is going to make the playoffs in the NFC North after missing last year, it's the Bears.

But it would be nice to see more aggression out of the Vikings' coaches. It's one thing to be cautious with Adrian Peterson, who's coming off major reconstructive surgery. It's another to give the kid-gloves treatment to guys who haven't done anything on the field to merit it, and who aren't hurt.

For the sake of Vikings fans, let's hope this is a good sign, but it doesn't appear to be one.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Adrian Peterson Sits Until Opener

It hasn't been officially announced, but a number of Twin Cities media outlets are reporting that the Vikings have decided to keep running back Adrian Peterson on the sidelines for the rest of the preseason.

Although there was talk of the running back returning to play Friday in the Minnesota Vikings' exhibition game against San Diego, an NFL source said Monday night that the Vikings are planning to keep the Pro Bowl running back on the sideline for their two remaining preseason games.

The Vikings' exhibition finale will be Aug. 30 in Houston.

Peterson has long pointed to being back for the team's regular-season opener on Sept. 9 against Jacksonville and club officials have made it clear that is a realistic possibility. The current plan remains for the Vikings to get Peterson on the field for that game.

This isn't a huge surprise, but it's a noteworthy story.

Vikings radio voice Paul Allen has noted a number of times on his daily show that Peterson could have practiced in camp from the outset, and he could have played in the preseason opener at San Francisco. The fact he hasn't played in a game yet has nothing to do with his rehab, but instead is simply a precaution.

Is it the right move?

Only the Vikings and Peterson can say for sure, but if I were a Vikings fan, I'd much rather see No. 28 in a preseason game if he's healthy enough to play in one.

One of the things I've learned from covering sports over the years is that there is often a mental hurdle for an athlete of any caliber to overcome when he suffers a major injury. That hurdle can be overcome by taking a hit, giving the player the feeling that he's finally okay. Sometimes, it takes a longer time than others, and there are some who can come right back with no ill effects.

Clearly, the Vikings are thinking Peterson can come back with little or no ill effects. Even if he's limited on Sept. 9, they have Toby Gerhart at their disposal, and he's looked strong so far in the preseason.

Peterson, when healthy, is unquestionably the best running back in the NFL. If Christian Ponder is going to improve as a passer, it is only going to help Peterson make big plays in the running game. If they can work off each other, there's no reason the Vikings won't be much improved when it comes to matriculating the ball down the field and scoring points.

Now ... about preventing points from being scored ...

Monday, August 20, 2012

Danny O'Brien Named Wisconsin Starting Quarterback

It comes as a surprise to probably no one not named Joel Brennan, but Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema named his 2012 starting quarterback on Sunday.

It's Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien.

In June, O'Brien transferred to Wisconsin from Maryland, where he made 17 starts the past two seasons and passed for 4,086 yards with 29 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. He graduated from Maryland in May and became eligible immediately at Wisconsin.

O'Brien beat out senior Curt Phillips and redshirt freshman Joel Stave for the starting job.

"Both Curt and Joel had great camps as well, we are very fortunate that we have 3 QB's that can play winning football for us," Bielema tweeted.

Insert "Free agency," "QB Transfer U," or "ACC" jokes here. It'll be the second straight year that Wisconsin has taken an immediate transfer from an ACC school and named that player its starting quarterback.

Of course, Russell Wilson won the gig last season, and he did all right, leading the Badgers to a second straight Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl berth. It sure wasn't his fault that the Badgers didn't beat a beatable Oregon team in the Rose Bowl, either.

O'Brien doesn't have Wilson's track record. In fact, the former Terp has seen his share of struggles at this level. After a more-than-solid freshman season, O'Brien stumbled in 2011, throwing seven touchdown passes to ten interceptions. Maryland stunk under new head coach Randy Edsall, and O'Brien didn't appear to be a great fit in the offense moving forward.

That said, O'Brien was Wisconsin's best option from the minute he decided to play there.

You see, he doesn't need to be anything close to Wisconsin's offensive MVP. That's Montee Ball, the Heisman Trophy candidate who will hopefully be fully healthy and ready to go for the opener against mighty Northern Iowa. O'Brien also shouldn't have to worry about getting overwhelmed by opposing pass rushers, as the Badgers have yet another pretty good offensive line in front of him. With Jared Abbrederis back, the receiving corps should be good, too.

Maryland allowed 34 points per game last season, putting even more heat on O'Brien and the offense, which simply wasn't built for big numbers. This offense is built for big numbers, and the defense won't be nearly that bad.

It won't be as explosive as it was with Wilson, but O'Brien is an upgrade for the Badgers at quarterback, and the Badgers are easily good enough to win another Big Ten title.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Badger Football Rabble: August 14

With Wisconsin's football team in its second week of practice, much is going on in Madison. What won't be going on there is a significant on-field challenge, at least not until October.

(No, Nebraska fans, that's not a shot at your overrated team. The Badgers and Cornhuskers play in Lincoln. Wisconsin's home games before an Oct. 27 date with Michigan State are as follows: Northern Iowa, Utah State, UTEP, Illinois, Minnesota. Yawn.)

While all the talk over the first week of fall camp seems to have been centered on running back Montee "Heisman" Ball, who was assaulted on campus Aug. 1, and had been silent until Media Day on Sunday.

Ball, who sustained a concussion when he was assaulted, didn't dodge any questions, including those concerning his Heisman Trophy candidacy and his physical condition heading into the season.

The 21-year-old Ball said he made a last-minute decision to go out with some friends before the start of training camp.

"We weren't getting rowdy or anything. I was just heading right back to my place a block away and I was attacked. That's all I remember," Ball said. "I'm very blessed because it obviously could have been a lot worse."

The injury kept Ball out for the first week of practice, but it sounds like he'll be weened back into the swing of things, and the hope still is that he'll be available for the UNI game.

While the running back job is Ball's as long as he's healthy, the quarterback position is once again unsettled. One year after the Badgers "rented" Russell Wilson and rode his right arm and mobility to a Big Ten title, Wisconsin has rolled the dice on another transfer. Former Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien doesn't have Wilson's track record of success, so it remains to be seen if he can make anything close to Wilson's impact. But while no one has handed O'Brien a thing so far at fall camp, he does expect to win the job.

(I know: What did you expect him to say? But at least he's not hiding from his expectations of himself.)

As far as the competition goes, well, yeah. Fifth-year senior Curt Phillips is coming off three knee surgeries, and it doesn't appear to be going well for him in camp.

On Monday, when media were allowed to watch practice for the first time, it looked like the biggest obstacle to Phillips winning the starting job might be his problem getting much zip on his passes.

Phillips was moving around fine, but still was having problem driving off his back leg when he threw.

Also on the depth chart is redshirt freshman Joel Stave. Hopes are high, but he's not there yet.

Stave did some good things and had one of the best throws of the practice, a completion of more than 20 yards to tight end Sam Arneson against double coverage. But Stave is still developing and needs to improve in several areas, including getting a quicker release.

No way Stave's a factor, but he's ahead of Joe Brennan -- last year's backup to Wilson -- on the depth chart. That apparently has Brennan a little cheesed.

Sophomore Joe Brennan was not at the team’s media day Sunday as he has been granted a “sabbatical” by Bret Bielema as “[h]e’s looking into some options outside of the University of Wisconsin to possibly transfer to.”

... Bielema, though, hasn’t completely closed the door on a return.

“I’m not for sure that’s going to happen. I’ve allowed him to take some time away from the program here, explore his options and get a feel for where he’s at and would welcome him back if that’s kind of the direction he wants to go.”

No grudge here. If Brennan is behind three guys who weren't a factor last year, he may feel he has the right to be perturbed. No reason why he shouldn't be allowed to look at his options, and no reason for Wisconsin to just cut ties because he wants to look at those options.

Expectations are high, and Bielema doesn't need to have unhappy guys, even if they're way down the depth chart.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Mounting Packers Injuries Show Importance of Depth, Other Things

Thursday was an ugly night for the Green Bay Packers, in more ways than one. A 21-13 loss is relatively inconsequential at this stage in the game. Doesn't matter. The way Green Bay got there, though, wasn't good, and neither has been the start of camp in terms of the team's health.

The Packers turned the ball over like crazy in San Diego, with reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers fumbling and throwing an interception in his short turn under center. If that wasn't enough, they lost starting middle linebacker Desmond Bishop in the first quarter, and it could be a season-ender.

Bishop, the Green Bay Packers’ leading tackler last season and one of its heart-and-soul players from his inside linebacker position, had had his right leg bent awkwardly beneath him while trying to tackle Chargers running back Ronnie Brown, and while it appeared the initial concern should be for Bishop’s knee, it was actually his hamstring that worried McKenzie.

And when McKenzie examined Bishop’s hamstring upon returning to Green Bay, his worst fears were realized: A tear that could very well end Bishop’s 2012 season before it starts.

“Unfortunately, the hamstring injury was what we feared,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said matter-of-factly after practice Saturday night. “Surgery is imminent, and Desmond’s season is in jeopardy. Once we have the surgery, we’ll have a better idea on his status for this season.”

Bishop also suffered a knee sprain on the play, “but the hamstring is what’s going to keep him out,” McCarthy said.

The Bishop loss would be a tough one, as it could be argued he's the Packers' best linebacker, even ahead of that Clay Matthews chap. Bishop is a run-stuffer who can also get things done in pass coverage, and he's developed into a leader on the defensive side of the ball.

The Packers don't have a ton of depth at the position, with DJ Smith likely taking over for Bishop. The dropoff in ability is cavernous, and it makes me wonder if Ted Thompson isn't done signing veterans during camp.

Wait. Isn't done? Thompson signed a veteran during training camp?

After taking heat a couple different times over his team not being blessed with much depth at running back, Thompson reacted quickly to news that James Starks would be "week to week" with turf toe. Sunday, the Packers announced a one-year, no-risk deal with running back Cedric Benson.

Benson, who turns 30 in December, spent the last four seasons in Cincinnati, registering 1,000-yard seasons each of the past three years. His best season for the Bengals was in 2009, when in 13 games he rushed for 1,251 yards and six touchdowns on 301 carries (4.2-yard average). 

That should solve the problem at running back. Once Starks returns, the Packers will be no worse off than they were when they had Starks with Ryan Grant. In fact, they might be better off, depending on what kind of shape Benson is in, and how motivated he is after three straight 1,000-yard seasons left him with no suitors once his Bengals deal was up last spring.

The offensive line is banged up, with journeyman turnstile Herb Taylor starting at left tackle in Thursday's loss. The position hasn't been addressed yet, but still might be before camp is over.

This early on, having so many guys banged up is not a good thing. It challenges a team's depth in ways that it really shouldn't be challenged this early in the season.

More than that, this should make abundantly clear the need for some good fortune -- ol' fashioned luck -- in the journey toward an NFL championship.

No one can predict when an injury is going to happen. Something like what felled Bishop on Thursday could happen to any defensive player at any time. Hell, it could happen to an offensive player, too. There is nothing that could be done to prevent it, outside of throwing the player in a bubble until the games count.

Sure, the Packers won Super Bowl XLV in a season where they seemed to have enough guys hurt to fill a separate starting lineup (it was only 15 guys on IR, with two more serious injuries suffered during the Super Bowl). But it's not a recipe for success.

If the Packers of 2012 are to have a shot at a second title in three years, they'd better hope for improved fortune in the injury department. Otherwise, the door might be more open in the NFC North than anyone thinks it is right now.

That would be good news for the Bears, Lions, and even Vikings, but not so much for the Cheeseheads.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Troy Jutting Hired at Nebraska Omaha

While we wait out the final two months before college hockey season kicks in, Nebraska Omaha has hired a new assistant coach. You might be familiar with this particular gentleman.

University of Nebraska Omaha head hockey coach Dean Blais announced today that Troy Jutting has been named the team's new assistant coach.  Jutting takes over for Brian Renfrew who left Omaha after one year to take a position with the Winnipeg Jets of the National Hockey League.

Jutting is well known to fans of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, having served as the head coach of Minnesota State for the last 12 years.

“We are fortunate that we have been able to add someone of Troy's experience to our staff,” said Blais.  “After so many games coaching against us, he knows our program and our players.  Just as important, he knows the WCHA and what it takes to be successful there.  I think he can help us as we compete for league and national championships.”

While leading the MSU Mavericks, Jutting compiled a career record of 184-224-55 and was named the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Coach of the Year in 2002-03 and 2007-08.  In both seasons, MSU finished in the top five in the WCHA.  In 2007-08, he also was a finalist for the Spencer Penrose Award as the nation's top Division I coach.

In all, Jutting had a 26-year affiliation with the Minnesota State program, a term than included 14 winning seasons.  Prior to taking over as head coach in March of 2000, the native of Richfield, Minn. was an assistant coach with the Mavericks from 1990-2000, contributing to MSU's move from Division II to Division I.  He played for the Mavericks from 1982-86.  In 136 games, he earned 145 points and still today ranks among MSU's all-time leaders in goals, assists, points and single-season goals.  As a senior, he finished sixth in the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association in scoring and earned all-conference honors.  He was a member of three NCAA Division III tournament teams including one that appeared in the D-III final four.

Like I said when he was dismissed by Minnesota State, Jutting is good people. He also knows the game. If he brings a more physical element to the UNO program through coaching style and recruiting, it wouldn't be a terrible thing for UNO. No question Blais can compete for high-end players.

(This should also tell you how badly Jutting wants to coach. He could have sat out the season and been paid by MSU to work as a special assistant, whatever that would have meant. Instead, his salary comes off MSU's books, and he gets to coach again. Everyone wins in that scenario, it seems.)

UNO disappointed a tad last season, finishing seventh after a horribly-timed slump at the end of the season. All the Mavericks needed over their last four games was two points, and they would have been home for the first round of the WCHA playoffs. Instead, UNO received zero, and ended up losing in two games at St. Cloud State in the first round.

Blais and Jutting -- along with new assistant Steve Johnson, who replaced new MSU head coach Mike Hastings -- will be charged with keeping a similar collapse from marring the reddish Mavericks' 2012-13 season.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Percy Harvin: Part-Time Special Teams Weapon?

Interesting nugget from Judd Zulgad, the fine 9am co-host on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

(I'm a PA guy both by affiliation and by choice, largely because I feel the rube vibe when it comes to my sports passions, and because I enjoy even insanely-slanted football conversation at random times of the year. That said, Zulgad and the crew put on a good show if you're willing to grab the web stream. I'm not anti-competition by any stretch.)

Zulgad took note of the way the Vikings used stud receiver Percy Harvin on kick returns last season, and he asked head coach Leslie Frazier about it at training camp.

To be honest, the answer surprised me a bit.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier is very aware of Harvin's value in this role, but he also doesn't want to overuse Harvin or subject him to injury. On Wednesday, Frazier said he will continue to make judgments on Harvin's use on kickoffs on a game-by-game or situation-by-situation basis.

"You can definitely see a difference when he's the guy returning kicks versus some of the other guys that we have," Frazier said. "It's obvious, but as we said before, you have to weigh what he gives us from an offensive standpoint as well and the way he plays. You have to weigh all of that when you're making a decision about putting him back there."

Harvin said the conversations with him about returning kicks have focused on using him when the team needs a spark.

"Probably in the beginning of the game, things like that," Harvin said. "Just a game changing situation. We flirted with it a little bit last year, but when Adrian (Peterson) and those guys went down we kind of went away from it. If the chance is there, I'll definitely be out there."

As Zulgad noted, Harvin only ran back 16 kickoffs last season. One of those -- the opening kickoff of Week 1 at San Diego -- was a touchdown. His average over the 16 was over 30 yards, a great total. By comparison, Harvin averaged 27.5 yards on 42 runbacks in his rookie season of 2009, scoring twice.

He's a dynamic weapon wherever the Vikings employ him, and that goes for special teams.

Frazier's stance is an interesting one. With all due respect, Harvin is not comparable to Devin Hester in this regard. Hester is also an elite kick returner, but he's never shown he can be an elite player at any other position on the field. He's never had more than 57 catches or four touchdowns in a season.

Harvin, meanwhile, has caught 218 passes in three NFL seasons, and he added "rushing threat" to his repertoire last season, carrying the rock 52 times for a 6.6 yard per carry average.

Basically, Frazier knows Harvin is a home-run threat every time the Vikings put the ball in his hands, no matter if it's as a running back or a receiver. Hell, Harvin could probably throw a few passes and make plays doing that, too.

However, there is a limit to a man's gas tank. Wearing Harvin down or unnecessarily exposing him to injury is just not sensical for a team coming off a 3-13 season and simply looking to get better.

But is it unnecessary?

The Vikings don't have any options at kick returner that jump off the page. Harvin's undeniable impact in that area makes me think his presence is "necessary" more often than not. When isn't a team coming off a three-win season looking for a spark?

It'll be interesting to see how many kick returns Harvin gets. The Vikings might not have options to run back kicks, but they have no one to take Harvin's role in the offense, either. Which is more important?

I think Harvin will run back more than 16 this season. I also think Frazier will use Harvin as a decoy, if nothing else, making teams kick to someone else. Remember, kickoffs are at the 35, so there will be fewer runbacks because kickers will more easily generate touchbacks. But if the Vikings are facing a team with a kicker who struggles to get the ball deep enough in the end zone, Harvin should be on the field virtually every time.

Not doing so is a disservice to the team. If you have a chance to break a game open, you break the game open, especially considering how rare an actual kickoff return should be with the new rules.