Redskins

Gophers look to prove themselves in Big Ten

Gophers look to prove themselves in Big Ten

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Golden Gophers have been here before.

They've steamrolled through cushy nonconference schedules to crack the AP Top 25 and raise some optimism for the season. Then the Big Ten comes along and roughs them up.

This year, they say they're different. Well, they're about to find out.

No. 11 Minnesota (12-1) hosts 19th-ranked Michigan State (11-2) in the Big Ten opener Monday, with a chance to set a new tone. The Gophers have had just two winning records in conference play in the last 15 years. In the previous two seasons, they've gone 23-2 in nonconference play and 12-24 against the heavyweights in their conference.

And they know it.

``We've definitely got a lot to prove,'' senior forward Rodney Williams said. ``We finished, what, 6-12 the last two years? We want to come into the Big Ten season and start off the right way. Usually we come out with a loss in the first game, and that hasn't ended too well for us in the Big Ten season. So we want to come out and get this `W' right away and see what happens.''

With Trevor Mbakwe healthy, Andre Hollins emerging as a top-flight point guard and more depth than Tubby Smith has ever had at Minnesota, the Gophers head into the Big Ten opener brimming with confidence. They have the highest ranking since they went to the Final Four in 1996-97 and have a nice mix of athleticism on the perimeter and muscle in the paint to stand up to the rugged schedule that awaits.

Smith has ridden players hard in his first five seasons since coming to Minnesota from Kentucky, a demanding approach that hasn't always sat well with some of the Gophers. But in his sixth season, he appears to finally have the mix of tenacious defenders and mentally tough veterans that he's been looking for.

``This group has really made it a lot of fun coming to practice,'' Smith said. ``They're sort of coaching themselves, and that's what good teams do. It's kind of like in the classroom when the teacher shows up and people are so excited about learning and being around one another. It makes it easier to teach and coach.''

Mbakwe hasn't played in a Big Ten game in nearly two years while he's worked his way back from a torn ACL in his right knee. He came off the bench for the first 12 games but was re-inserted into the starting lineup against Lafayette last week, and he said he's getting close to being all the way back.

``I'm excited about going up against another top-20 team, especially one that's coached by coach (Tom) Izzo, one of the best coaches in America,'' Mbakwe said. ``We're excited. It's a New Year's game. It's a chance for us to really set the tone and send a statement out that we're serious this year. And we're all up for the challenge.''

This season could be the most challenging in the Big Ten in years. Six teams are ranked in the top 20, including three ahead of the Gophers.

``We start the Big Ten season off against Michigan State, probably one of the most physical teams in the country. You're playing against better competition, and we'll definitely have to limit our turnovers and stuff like that,'' Mbakwe said. ``We can't beat ourselves. The level of intensity picks up, and we're excited for the challenge.''

The Gophers are 1-4 in Big Ten openers under Smith and have lost four straight to the Spartans, who have shown a knack in the past of deflating Minnesota's balloon just when things started looking up. So in some ways, the schedule couldn't unfold any better for the Gophers.

They get a team that has owned them on their floor on the last day of 2012. If this season is going to be different, this game will go a long way toward showing it.

``We can definitely contend for a Big Ten title, and we know that,'' Williams said. ``We've just got to come out and prove that to everybody else.''

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AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this story.

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Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter:http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski

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Dwayne Haskins has room to grow in a few areas, but this one might be the most crucial

Dwayne Haskins has room to grow in a few areas, but this one might be the most crucial

Dwayne Haskins is completing just 55-percent of his attempts as a pro quarterback so far, has thrown three touchdowns against seven interceptions and is averaging only 166 yards per start.

All of those numbers hint at how Haskins must grow as a passer in the NFL. However, those aspects are secondary to the area he needs to improve the most as he continues to see action for the Redskins.

The facet of his game that requires the most work is avoiding sacks. Yes, his accuracy and decision-making and choices in the red zone are all important, but none of those things will get better or reveal themselves if No. 7 is lying on his back and looking at the sky as much as he's doing so far.

The rookie has been dropped 22 times in his five appearances as starter, and 26 times overall. According to The Athletic, if you take the rate which Haskins is being sacked at as the team's primary signal caller and extrapolate it over a full schedule, it'd add up to the third-worst total in league history.  

So, yeah, that's extremely troublesome. 

On Wednesday, Haskins explained how his desire to be aggressive is partly causing this issue to be such an issue.

"Sometimes when I'm back there, I'm trying to find things deep or down the field instead of just finding the checkdown in the flat," he said.

As for how to remedy that, the 22-year-old told the media it's about being more aware of his immediate options.

"Just knowing where all my quick elements are when things happen fast and when things get on me," Haskins said.

Of course, each sack is its own entity, and not all of them fall on the guy with the ball. There have been instances this year where Haskins will go down and a replay will show an offensive lineman immediately getting beaten, the kind of sequence that will make any QB vulnerable. Not all of the negative plays are happening because of where Haskins is in his development.

However, to compare, Case Keenum was sacked just 12 times in his eight starts behind the same O-line. That's a significantly lower number.

Just like every other part of Haskins' skill set, this is something that should get sharper with experience. Every Sunday, assuming he gets a lot more, will lead to him becoming more adept at reading defenses, more proficient at adjusting protection calls and more prepared to find his outlet options.  

Keenum has seen all that there is to see in the NFL, while Haskins is just beginning that arduous process.

And, while Bill Callahan admitted he hates seeing the offense plagued by the sacks, the interim coach also detailed something beyond experience that could help Haskins limit them in the future.

"He's not a repetitive guy, a repetitive-mistake player, where you see continually the small mistakes over and over again," Callahan said. "He makes a mistake, he recognizes it, he moves on and you don't see a repetitive error come back into his game. There's been a lot of growth in that respect."

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Ravens special teams lacking across the board, lone sore spot in dominating win

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Ravens special teams lacking across the board, lone sore spot in dominating win

BALTIMORE — If there was a lone dark spot on the Ravens’ 42-21 win over the Jets, it was the special teams. 

From kickoff coverage to even Justin Tucker, each particular unit had its fair share of struggles. The Jets blocked a punt — and scored, had long returns on both kickoff and punt returns and Tucker missed an extra-point. 

“We played really well on special teams last week,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We played not well at all this week. So, that’s an area of concern right now. I give them credit. They played really well, but we didn’t.”

The trouble started from the get-go when the Jets had a good return on the opening kick. They carried that throughout the game, as Ty Montgomery and Vyncint Smith averaged kickoff returns of 23.3 and 28.7 yards, respectively. Smith had a long of 37 yards and Montgomery had a long of 34 yards.

Then on the Ravens second touchdown of the night, Tucker missed an extra point — a rarity for the league’s most consistent kicker. Before Thursday’s game, he’d missed just one extra point all season and one field goal. 

While it’s nothing to be concerned about, any miss for Tucker is certainly surprising. 

And finally, in the fourth quarter, the Jets bull-rushed up the middle through the Ravens’ punt team and blocked the kick for a score.

Baltimore’s special teams units have been stellar all season, so Thursday’s game isn’t something to fret over long-term. But it’s certainly something to monitor as the games tighten, leaving little room for error on the margins.  

“We just have to get better,” Harbaugh said of the returns. “They were basically blocking us. They blocked our guys on the kickoff return. They did a great job with it. They ran a little pick-stunt on the blocked punt that we should have picked up with no problem, and we didn’t. That’s an issue for us.”

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