Avatar of Steve Hartman

About Steve Hartman

Digital Sales Manager at Rivertown Multimedia. Huge sports fan from basketball to tennis, golf to football and everything in between.

Packers Take Off, Vikings Fall Flat

So much negative news going on in the NFL this past week. I have many thoughts and opinions. At some point I’d like to take the time to post them here, but it would take me a while to digest my thoughts in an eloquent, coherent manner. You can find many other opinions that probably mirror mine. For now I’ll stick with the games that are played, despite my urge to resist watching organizations and leagues that appear to have their priorities mixed up.

Packers vs NYJ – As I predicted, the Packers lost at Seattle, but came home to win vs the NY Jets. It was closer than expected, due in part to some injuries. However, no NFL game is easy. The Jets came to play, but Rodgers to Nelson was too much. He picked them apart, Nelson had a career day and the defense did just enough to win. I’m still concerned about this defense. They Packers D gave up 146 yards on the ground, while Eddie Lacy continued his 2014 struggles with only 3.3 yds per carry for 43 total rushing yards, granted against another stout run defense. The Packers secondary did make some plays, including Tramon Williams’ 2nd quarter INT, and held Jets’ QB Geno Smith to only 50% completion percentage. It also should be noted that only the Jets can score a TD late in the 4th quarter, but call a timeout just before the play is run.

The Packers next head to Detroit for a match-up with the Lions. This will be an interesting game on a couple fronts. Detroit looked unstoppable in week 1, but awful in week 2. My guess is the Lions are somewhere in between those two performances. Green Bay’s passing offense and defense improved in week 2. I expect a shoot-out with Detroit, but the Packers win.

Vikings vs New England – The Adrian Peterson news hit the Vikings hard, but many of their problems were independent of Peterson’s game. QB Matt Cassel looked unsure and inaccurate, which is pretty much Cassel in a nutshell. He’s like my golf game, consistently inconsistent. Cordarrelle Patterson was taken out of the game, partly due to Norv Turner amazingly not using him in the run game, but also by the Patriots’ understanding of his inadequacies as a route runner. Belicheck’s defense never let Patterson get off the line clean and he had fits all afternoon in 1-on-1 battles with Logan Ryan. Great quote by Michael Hurley, CBS Boston, “I found it very telling that for as much hype as buffoons such as myself gave to Cordarrelle Patterson, Bill Belichick put Patterson duties on second-year corner Logan Ryan. That left Revis to stick like glue to Greg Jennings, and the play he made on the ball to pick up the interception was tremendous.” The Patriots offense didn’t do a lot, and Mike Zimmer’s defense actually played alright. New England’s blocked FG return for a TD was a back-breaker and resulted in a 10-point swing. They also returned an INT to the 1-yard line, so essentially 14 pts were not on the defense.

How many of the problems were game-planning with Peterson and then not having him? How much was LT Matt Kalil’s continued struggles? The Vikings don’t get a break next week at the loud Superdome and Drew Brees’ Saints. I fully expect the Vikings to lose this game, especially if the two Matts, Cassel and Kalil, don’t improve.The Vikings are 1-1, as expected in my season preview. 

So far, I’m 4-for-4 on my picks for the Vikings and Packers this season. Good start for the novice game picker.

East Ridge WR named Pioneer Press Athlete of the Week

East Ridge senior WR Kjetil Cline was named one of the Pioneer Press’ East Metro Athletes of the Week following his 5-catch, 121-yard performance in a 23-7 win over Cretin-Derham Hall.

Cline was one of the players featured in our East Ridge football preview. His Raptors are 2-0 heading into a Friday, September 12th match-up with Mahtomedi in Woodbury. Watch for the RiverTown Sports Roundup video blog on WoodburyBulletin.com and SWCBulletin.com later this week for a look at week 3 in Woodbury/Cottage Grove prep football.

McCarthy Decisions, Packers D concerning

Count me surprised by how aggressive and sharp the Seahawks looked on the NFL’s opening night. All that talk from Russell Wilson and Co. about not having a Super Bowl Hangover was spot on.

Still I thought the Packers would keep it close, and in the 1st half it appeared they might. But losing Bryan Bulaga to a knee injury was a huge blow to the Pack against a dominant Seattle defense. (RB Eddie Lacy’s concussion isn’t a good sign either. It’s his 2nd in 2 years.) Aaron Rodgers never had time to make plays downfield, especially once the Seahawks built a double-digit lead and thePackers running game became irrelevant.

But a couple things have me seriously concerned about Green Bay. Before you say anything, I fully realize Seattle is an outstanding team, especially defensively. That being said:

1. What was Mike McCarthy doing leaving Derek Sherrod on an island in the 2nd half after Bulaga went out? Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, knew that was a bad idea. It directly led to 2 pts on a Seattle safety after Michael Bennett flew past Sherrod and stripped Rodgers of the ball, not to mention the great field position on the ensuing free kick. But it also stopped the Packers from getting any kind of consistent drive going because any  progress was thwarted by a Seattle sack, usually blowing past an overmatched Sherrod. Why were the Packers not giving him any help? I’d sacrifice a back or TE from going out on a route to save Rodgers’ life and allow him at least the chance to find a receiver. Sorry, Derek, it’s NOT all about execution.

2. WARNING: Bold statement coming…..I don’t necessarily think Seattle’s offense is that good. They are probably top 10, but not top 5 (2013 they were 18th in yards/game and 8th in pts/game, with a handful of points coming from the defense). Wilson has almost no one to throw to outside of Percy Harvin – who looked FANTASTIC and had me flashing back to 2009. As their best receiver, he isn’t the most durable. If he gets hurt teams will gang up on Lynch, which GB should have been doing. But this Packers defense couldn’t stop someone named Robert Turbin, let alone Marshawn Lynch. Rookie safety HaHa Clinton-Dix made a couple feeble attempts at tackles, including this one, and dropped a difficult, yet catchable interception. Sam Shields looked good at times, but also get fooled on the read-option TD pass. Clay Matthews looked fast and played well. Free-agent Julius Peppers did ok, but was targeted in the run game and could become a liability vs elite rush offense.

Again, these problems may just be a factor of playing the best defense in the NFL and a really good QB, RB and Percy Harvin. But this was a bad defense last year and it didn’t look any better last night. On the other hand McCarthy, rightfully so, has a ton of belief in his quarterback. But he shouldn’t expect him figure out a way to buy more time when his offensive line is hurt, and full of back-ups.

Something needs to change. Luckily for the Packers, they have 10 days to adjust before they welcome in the New York Jets.

Packers Preview: Can Improved D, Healthy Rodgers earn Pack Top Seed?

Labor Day weekend pushed back my NFL previews But since the Packers play the NFL kickoff game vs the defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks Thursday, I had to get going.

It’s been proven the past 6 seasons a healthy Aaron Rodgers almost guarantees the Packers will be in the playoffs. They’ve been at or near the top of the NFC North since he took over for Brett Favre in 2008 and have been to the playoffs every season since 2009. I firmly believe they are a top 3 team in the NFC so long as Rodgers starts 16 games. The key question is will they earn a home playoff game in that scenario? A suspect defense and injuries already affecting the Pack, are the only things standing in the way of a top-2 seed in the NFC. But as we learned in 2013, a home playoff game doesn’t necessarily mean a deep playoff run. We’ll learn a lot about the fans’ hope for that improved defense, and whether the offense can score vs the NFL’s best defense Thursday on NBC.

Here is my game-by-game prediction of the 2014 Green Bay Packers.

Week 1 at Seattle – Tough way to start, an electric atmosphere at the “Link” where the Seahawks will celebrate their Super Bowl Championship. But Rodgers and Co. are no slouch. If anyone can pick apart the Seahawks defense it’s Green Bay. Many national pundits aren’t predicting a hangover for Seattle, but I can see it, at least in week 1. However, I have to go with Seattle here, partly due to a new GB center, Pack lose in a close game.

Week 2 vs New York Jets – No matter what happens in Week 1, Green Bay will torch the Jets. That Jets defense is decent, but they are going to be on the field a lot. I have no faith in Geno Smith as QB. The way to beat GB is with a strong running game keeping Rodgers off the field, and the Jets will be behind and forced to throw. The Packers’ secondary has a field day in a double-digit win.

Week 3 at Detroit – This could be an exciting game with lots of points. Until proven otherwise though, Green Bay is the far superior team. They will win a game in the 30s.

Week 4 at Chicago – Classic NFC North battle…in today’s NFL with high-octane passing games and “basketball on turf.” I like the Bears receivers vs Green Bay’s secondary in this one. Julius Pepper’s return is a fun storyline, but I don’t know that Pepper’s has enough in the tank. Chicago TE Bennett could have a good game too if they can find a good matchup vs the LB crew of Green Bay. I’ll pick Chicago here.

Week 5 vs Minnesota – The Packers will torch a porous Vikings secondary, but it may take Rodgers a quarter or two to realize Minnesota isn’t playing the soft Cover-2 defense. He’ll pick on Josh Robinson in nickel situations and Anthony Barr vs the Green Bay tight ends or Eddie Lacy. Packers win by 7+.

Week 6 at Miami – After 3 straight vs the NFC North the Packers travel to South Beach to play the Dolphins and I suspect they’ll be happy to get in the warmth of Florida. Eddie Lacy has a big day, but Miami hangs around. I like the Packers in a close one, with Crosby coming up with some big FGs.

Week 7 vs Carolina – The Panthers defense is outstanding, but I doubt their offense will help them enough to win games, let alone vs the Pack. Carolina is my pick to be the playoff team from 2013 who takes a step back. Unless rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin emerges as a stud, this is a terrible receiving crew. The Packers secondary will be able to focus on TE Greg Olsen. Packers win.

Week 8 at New Orleans – My belief is these two teams are incredible similar and have been for years, since Brees’ arrival in NO and Rodgers emergence. As long as the QB is upright and healthy they’ll be in the playoff hunt. Their respective defenses live off turnovers and big plays. So this is a battle of attrition and I will take the home team. New Orleans in a tight one.

Week 9 BYE – As the bye approaches at the halfway point, I have the Packers at 5-3. That feels right.

Week 10 vs Chicago – The Packers get revenge for their earlier loss at Chicago. This is a Sunday Night NBC game and should provide plenty of excitement. I’m not going against McCarthy and Rodgers off a bye, in a nationally televised game. Pack win.

Week 11 vs Philadelphia – I can see this being a trap game. Philly’s offense was outstanding last year. I believe they are the favorite to win a bad NFC East. However, I don’t trust Nick Foles, in fact some call him the most over-rated Eagle, to meet or exceed the excellent play of 2013. I think he regresses and the Eagles lost Desean Jackson. Lesean “Shady” McCoy is still an unbelievable weapon, going top 3 in fantasy drafts, but not enough by himself. Pack make it two in a row out of the bye.

Week 12 at Minnesota – Since I picked the Vikings to win this game in my Purple Preview I suppose I have to go with them again here, though I don’t feel great about it. Even in their worst years though, Minnesota has proven feisty at home, though this won’t be the Metrodome. (Minnesota was 16-15 vs Green Bay at Metrodome.) I still like their improved team enough to keep it close, and in close division games I go with the home team. Minnesota in an upset.

Week 13 vs New England – Is this a Super Bowl preview? Could be, but obviously not the betting favorites. It doesn’t get any better than these two QBs. The difference will be the running game and Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy is superior to anyone New England has. Home field is irrelevant here since NE plays outdoors in a cold-weather city. But the NFC is superior to the AFC and Green Bay shows it here with a gutty win.

Week 14 vs Atlanta – I don’t like Green Bay’s match-up with the big receivers from Atlanta. If the Packers have a let-down loss on the schedule I think it’s this one. They are due for a poor performance, and it could be the Minnesota game, but I think they actually play well in Minnesota yet lose. Also, another member of the O-line or two could be hurt by this point. Atlanta will be improved, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Matt Ryan break apart that secondary in a December surprise.

Week 15 at Buffalo – This is another trap game, but if the Packers, as I’m predicting, lose 2 of their previous 3, they won’t be lethargic in Buffalo. I think Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and that front 7 get after EJ Manuel or whoever is playing QB in Buffalo. The Bills defense is good, but not good enough. Packers get back on track and look good doing it.

Week 16 at Tampa – Green Bay is beginning their playoff preparation and I think Tampa will be out of contention. The Pack will know they can lock up a first-round bye with 2 wins in the final 2 weeks. This will mean something to them. Good balance, a few turnovers from Josh McCown and/or Mike Glennon, the Bucs aren’t beating the Pack in a meaningful December game. Also, the Packers speed will enjoy playing in Florida 4 days before Christmas. Packers win.

Week 17 vs Detroit – Again, I think the Pack will be playing for a first-round playoff bye and Detroit will be trying to play spoiler. Green Bay gives up a lot of points in this game and it’s not pretty. They struggle to put away the Lions, but in late December Eddie Lacy has the potential to be the most important player on the Pack. I think he has a big day. Packers win something like 34-31.

That gets the Packers to 11-5. I’m still not sure that earns them a top-2 seed and first-round bye, but they will win the NFC North and get at least one game at Lambeau in the playoffs. San Francisco may take a small step backwards which could allow Arizona a window in the NFC West. If the Packers lose to New Orleans as I predict, that could cost them the 1 or 2-seed via tiebreaker, with Seattle gaining the other top seed. Those will be the top 3 in the NFC. What the order is who knows.

But once again, the Pack reign supreme in the NFC North and position themselves for a deep playoff run. Can the defense improve, create turnovers, get enough sacks to win big games? Will Eddie Lacy maintain or improve on an impressive rookie season? Will the Packers stay healthy (FINALLY)? If the answer to those 3 is yes, they will be in the NFC Championship game with a chance to win a Super Bowl in 2014-15.

Vikings Preview: Will Zimmer right the ship?

Coming off a 5-10-1 season (yes, Donovan, an NFL game can end in a tie), the Minnesota Vikings feel they have a lot to prove. They showed they mean business with wins in all 4 meaningless preseason games. That was my tongue being firmly planted in cheek. That being said I have been pleasantly surprised by how good the offense has looked without Adrian Peterson, who wisely chooses to avoid contact in these exhibition games. However, the offense wasn’t the problem last year and it most likely won’t be this year. Any and all improvement for the Purple’s record will depend on whether new head coach and defensive mind Mike Zimmer can straighten out a historically bad Viking defense, specifically the secondary.

The Vikings finished near the bottom in total defense and pass defense. Their rush defense was only moderately bad. Many of the problems, in my mind, were schematic so the Zimmer change is welcomed by this writer. However, poor personnel at the LB, Safety (outside of Harrison Ford…er Smith) and CB continue to plague a team that faces 3 elite QBs in its division. Bringing in Captain Munnerlyn as a veteran CB with some play-making ability is huge and surely helps. But they are still stuck with Josh Robinson as the 3rd corner in a team expected to play a ton of nickel defense. The safety opposite of Smith is still unknown. Apparently no one really wants the spot.

But enough of the negatives. Let’s just get to actual games so I can stop hearing about games that don’t matter, Johnny Football being a back-up, and Michael Sam’s showering habits. Here is my game-by-game preview of the Minnesota Vikings:

Week 1 at St. Louis – The Vikings secondary was handed a gift when Sam Bradford went down with a torn ACL. Obviously feel bad for Bradford, but the Vikings defense should see some relief with his absence. Vikings win on the road in a close, low-scoring game.

Week 2 vs New England – The Vikings are known for cowering in primetime, nationally-televised games. This won’t be like 2002′s debacle vs the Seahawks that led to this outstanding quote from Mike Patrick, “The Seahawks won the coin toss and elected to kick the living bejeezus out of the Vikings” or the night Tom Brady torched the Metrodome turf in a 31-7 beatdown of the Purple. I just wanted to bring up those horrible performance because they bring back some hilarious commentary. It won’t be that bad this time, but I still see “The Fighting Brady’s” winning.

Week 3 at New Orleans – I hate this game, not only because of the shock and awe STILL lingering from 2009, but because Drew Brees is still the QB for the Saints. Check out his #s in 3 games vs the here. Vikings lose, and probably give up 350 yds passing for the 2nd straight week.

Week 4 vs Atlanta – The Falcons weren’t nearly as bad as their 4-12 record indicated in 2013. They were coming off a 13-3 mark and #1 seed in the NFC in 2012. I expect them to be somewhere in the middle. They have outstanding receivers, but no running game. I bet the Vikings pass defense is looking forward to a downgrade in opposing QB play, but it won’t be much. I give the Vikings the win here since it’s at home. Revenge for ’98! (or not).

Week 5 at Green Bay – The never-ending parade of HoF QBs continues. The Purple lose in GB almost as often as they do in Chicago. I give the Packers the edge. They are one of the 3 best teams in the NFC and the Vikings just can’t keep up on defense. It’ll be close though, as it tends to be in this rivalry.

Week 6 vs Detroit – Calvin Johnson may score 2 TDs and get 200 yds receiving, but it’s still the Lions of old. The only difference is they lose less often because of great talent. But they still find ways to lose in grandiose fashion even off the field. Vikings win in a shootout because neither defense cares to stop anyone, unless it’s Suh cheap-shotting someone.

Week 7 at Buffalo – This is the first game that on paper, the Vikings should be favored. However, it’s mid-October in Buffalo and as Dennis Green once said the “Calcutta Clipper” can swing down and up and out. It’s a stout Bills defense. If the Vikings want to be taken seriously after that brutal schedule to start, they have to win this. So naturally I’m taking Buffalo in a barn-burner.

Week 8 at Tampa – Another game, eerily similar to the Buffalo game. Vikings probably won’t be favored here, but have probably enough talent to win. Since I picked them to lose in Buffalo, I’ll take the Purple to win here. I think they split these two games.

Week 9 vs Washington – The Vikings won 34-27 last year. RGIII has new weapon Desean Jackson to throw to. However, the Vikings are tough to beat at home and Griffin isn’t quite elite enough to pick apart a porous secondary. Vikings win in another high-scoring affair.

Week 10  BYE – I have the Vikings at 5-4 entering their bye week. I love the week 10 bye, especially if Minnesota is above .500. Even at 4-5 they have a decent shot at 8-8 or better. Again, they need to be 2-3 or better after 5 games to consider playoffs.

Week 11 at Chicago – The Vikings never win at Soldier Field. It used to be because the team was built for speed on that Metrodome turf and the long grass at Soldier Field threw them off. I think it’s just because Chicago historically has a good team. This year is no different and the Vikings will find another way to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory in Chicago as they did in 2013. Bears win thanks to Alshon Jeffrey, Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler.

Week 12 vs Green Bay – This is a tricky game. Even in down years the Vikings can beat the Pack at home. This game is the week before Thanksgiving and cold will be barreling down on TCF Bank Stadium. I take the Vikings in an upset. I won’t predict snow, nor a 65-degree Nov day. But I’m feeling a gut-wrenching loss here, maybe a Walsh missed FG at the horn. Pack wins.

Week 13 vs Carolina – The Panthers came to Metrodome last season and hung a 35-10 loss on the Vikings. It was embarrassing on many counts. Maybe the most embarrassing, and what ultimately cost him his job, was Leslie Frazier’s handling of it. He seemed to pin the loss on Matt Cassel, who only played 2 games, because the following week Frazier started Josh Freeman vs the Giants. We won’t revisit that debacle. But I do think the loss of Steve Smith hurts Carolina and Cam Newton. I believe the Vikings pull this out in a slugfest.

Week 14 vs New York Jets – J-E-T-S and the Rex Ryan circus comes to “The Bank” and this may be the easiest game on the schedule, which doesn’t have an easy game on it. the Jets are terrible even in the MOST meaningless of preseason games. The Vikings win by 10+.

Week 15 at Detroit – Another tricky division game. This could go two ways: The Lions have become irrelevant and dysfunctional but still give Minnesota a close game OR the Vikings have become irrelevant and dysfunctional and the Lions rout the Purple. I say close game, Minnesota wins.

Week 16 at Miami – This feels like a let-down game, regardless how the season goes to this point. Something tells me the hot Miami sun, Cuban food, and clubs catch up to the Vikings here and Miami wins. As I did before, I may be wrong, but I think the Vikings win 2 of 3 vs NYJ, DET, & MIA.

Week 17 vs Chicago – I don’t have any stats to back this up, but it seems like when the Vikings have NEEDED to win a week 17 game to make the playoffs, they’ve done it; Recently versus the Giants (2008) and Packers (2012). Up to this point the Vikings are 8-7. Unfortunately for them 9-7 isn’t getting them in the playoffs. However, the Bears could need this to make a Wild Card spot, and I think the Vikings hold home field and upset the 10-5 Bears, 28-27.

That’s it, Minnesota goes 9-7, definitely covering the Vegas win Over/Under of 6…for those that partake in that sort of thing. I like what I’ve seen from the offense, Peterson is other-worldy and should have another strong year with possibly receptions in the area of 2009 when he last had a capable QB, the defense will be better (can’t be worse!) and the coaching staff will breathe new life into the team. Unfortunately, the NFC is so good, teams may need 11 wins just to make a Wild Card spot, 10 at a minimum. Among SEA, SF, GB, CHI, NO, who won’t have 10+ wins? The NFC is loaded.

Although 9-7 is a much-improved season and would be an exciting step for Zimmer and his staff, I don’t see the Vikings making the post-season. Regardless, my Fantasy Football team WILL, put a guarantee on it, and I can’t wait to watch the Packers and Seahawks kickoff Thursday. Go Rodgers and Jordy Nelson, my fantasy dream team!

Can Gophers improve on 8 wins? Tough sledding ahead

The college football season gets under way this week and tonight (Thursday) the Minnesota Golden Gophers host Eastern Illinois University. Minnesota will look to build on an 8-win season in 2013. With returning starters on both sides of the ball, the Gophers expect big things in 2014. But a tough schedule, including a non-conference road game at TCU, would make getting back to 8 wins in 2014 even more impressive.

2013 Record: 8-5 (4-4 Big Ten) Key wins: Nebraska, Penn State. Key losses: Syracuse (Texas Bowl), Iowa, Wisconsin

The Golden Gophers used their power running game as the main source of offense in 2013. The key to that rushing attack was/is the offensive line. Minnesota returns starters guard Zac Epping, center Tommy Olson and right tackle Josh Campion. The coaching staff is finally seeing the fruits of their recruiting labor on the OL. They have depth with prized sophomore 6’9”, 320-lb tackle Jonah Pirsig, and others, likely to see time.

The defense was a surprise last season. They ranked 5th in the Big Ten in pass defense, 8th in rush defense. Two main cogs of that group are gone. Stud DL Ra’Shede Hageman was picked by the Atlanta Falcons and DB Brock Vereen is trying to win a starting spot with the Chicago Bears. Those two will be tough to replace, but talented veterans Sr. Cedric Thompson, Sr. Derrick Wells and Jr. Eric Murray will hold down the secondary just fine. CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun returns from a knee injury after playing 2 seasons ago. Freshman CB Craig James has stood out in practice and should see time. This may be the best secondary I’ve ever seen in Maroon & Gold, including the Tyrone Carter/Willie Middlebrooks group. It will have to be outstanding because the Gophers will see at least 7 spread offenses this year.

The defensive line returns 3 starters that should help make up for the loss of Hageman. Theiren Cockran, Jr. DE, was a menace on the edge. Cameron Botticelli played alongside Hagemen on the inside, but will need to step up and control the middle. Jr. Scott Ekpe joins Botticelli at D-Tackle. DE Michael Amaefula needs to make more plays opposite Cockran but should get his opportunities. There is some depth on the D-line and that will be important against the punishing offenses of Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State, and spread teams like Michigan and Northwestern.

It’s imperative the D-line unit plays well because the weak link of the defense will be the linebackers. Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell bring some experience and play-making ability. But the group is thin and inexperienced after that. Injuries and youth at LB can be masked for a while, but eventually they’ll need to improve and make big stops vs Big Ten running backs and tight ends. Michigan St, Wisconsin and Iowa have proved that excellent LB play can dictate many things on defense. The Gophers still aren’t there at that position.

If Minnesota wants to see any major improvement in 2014 it will have to come in the passing game. With the departure of Phillip Nelson, this is now sophomore QB Mitch Leidner’s team. His running abilities brought a nice element to the ground game, but with David Cobb (1,202 yards in 2013), Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams, and speedy freshman Berkley Edwards, the Gophers don’t need help running the football. What they do need is for someone who can stretch the field with his arm and players to make plays in space. Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten in passing offense. Sadly, with their ground game finishing in the top half of the league, the passing game only needs to be adequate for the team to improve. Leidner will look to security blanket TE Maxx Williams plenty this season, but WRs Isaac Fruechte (Sr.), Drew Wolitarsky (So.), Donovahn Jones (So.), KJ Maye (Jr.) and others will need to step up. Edwards could be a big playmaker in the passing game. Defenses will pack the box against Minnesota and Leidner will need to stretch defenses and prove he can make throws. Leidner’s health will be huge too, because the back-up QB situation is unsettled and Chris Streveler and Conor Rhoda have no game experience. The receivers need to get more separation and make plays in space. I hate to be this black and white, but the passing game will dictate the success of this team.

Special teams has improved under Jerry Kill and Co. There is some depth there as well. Incumbent P Peter Mortell should win the job. Kickers Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte are having a good battle. It’s good to have options in case one guy struggles. The return game is strong as well. Electric return man Marcus Jones returns and Berkley Edwards should get some work here as well.

Predictions:

Home vs Eastern Illinois – The Panthers, despite a run in the FCS playoffs, don’t have a chance. No Jimmy Garappolo, no problem for Minnesota. Gophers 42-14.

Home vs Middle Tennessee State – To be honest, like most followers I know nothing about them, other than the Gophers barely squeaked out a victory vs MTSU in one of Tim Brewster’s lost years. Minnesota rolls 35-10.

Road at TCU – This is a huge game for Minnesota. A win almost guarantees 6+ wins, but a loss puts the team in jeopardy of missing a bowl game. The Horned Frogs led the Big 12 in total defense, typical under coach Gary Patterson, impressive considering the offensive juggernauts (Baylor, Ok State, Oklahoma) in the Big 12. Their offense was pretty dreadful though. TCU was 9th out of 10 in the conference in turnover margin. If the Gophers can get and capitalize on turnovers they win. If not, they lose. TCU has some unsettled players at QB and D-line, both advantages for the Gophers. I’ll go with MN in what is sure to be an upset, 24-17.

Home vs San Jose State – Much like Eastern Illinois, the Spartans lose their much-hallowed QB. Losing on the road to Minnesota in 2013 with an NFL-drafted QB doesn’t bode well for SJSU in 2014. Gophers win 31-13.

I’m only previewing the non-conference games today. Too much can happen and I’d like to see the teams in real games before looking at the Big Ten schedule.

Watch for my Wisconsin Badger preview to come shortly.

Area Players Make Kare 11 All-Metro Team

Kare 11 TV out of the Twin Cities released their preseason All-Metro football team and 4 players from the RiverTown footprint made the cut.

QB Seth Green, East Ridge, Junior – has numerous offers, the most recent caller was Oregon to go along with Minnesota, Wisconsin among others. Check out WoodburyBulletin.com and SWCBulletin.com this Friday for a preview on East Ridge football.

ATH Dimitri Williams, Rosemount, Senior -  Matt Steichen previewed the Irish football team and its “explosive offense.” Williams led the conference in all-purpose yards a year ago.

OL Nick Connelly, Red Wing, Senior – University of Minnesota recruit, Connelly, will anchor the offensive line for new coach, and former Gopher himself, Rickie Foggie. Read Joe Brown’s Wingers preview here.

DL JoJo Garcia, East Ridge, Junior – the 6’3″, 270 lb defensive lineman is receiving plenty of interest including scholarship offers from Minnesota and Michigan State.