MADISON, Wis. — The long plane ride Saturday night from Oregon back to Wisconsin gave Badgers coach Bret Bielema plenty of time to collect his thoughts.
Still seething from an embarrassing 10-7 loss to Oregon State, he contemplated Wisconsin’s product on the field during the first two weeks of this season. And he outlined a blueprint for what he wanted the team to look like moving forward.
When Bielema awoke in the morning, he knew a change needed to be made.
On Sunday, Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson, who was hired in January and coached just two games with the team. Bielema will replace Markuson with Bart Miller, who has spent the past two seasons with the program, mostly assisting the offensive line.
“As a head coach, I’ve got to make some decisions once in a while that aren’t going to be popular and from the outside world looking in may not make the most sense,” Bielema said during his weekly Monday news conference. “For me, as a head coach internally, I know how to win games. I know how to win championships, and the decision I made was one I’m going to stick with and go forward.”
The firing comes on the heels of Wisconsin’s miserable offensive performance against Oregon State. The Badgers were nearly shut out for the first time in 15 years and registered just 207 yards of total offense — the lowest output in five seasons. It also was evident that Wisconsin’s typically dominant offensive line was not producing much of a push in the run game and struggled to pass protect.
Wisconsin finished with 23 rushing attempts for 35 yards. Quarterback Danny O’Brien also was sacked three times for a loss of 35 yards. The Badgers rank 103rd of 120 teams nationally in rushing offense overall, averaging 101.5 yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry despite having returning Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball at running back.
Bielema insisted that Markuson’s firing was not the result of one single game, or even personality issues with the players. He said he regularly meets with assistants so they understand what is expected of them and that his decision did not come overnight.
“I know everybody’s got their own foregone conclusions of what transpired,” Bielema said. “It was really something that wasn’t a knee-jerk thing by me. It’s something that we’ve kind of talked about and processed through.”
Markuson spent 14 seasons coaching the offensive lines at Arkansas and Mississippi. At Wisconsin, he replaced Bob Bostad, who initially left the Badgers to become an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh, where former UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was named head coach. Ultimately, Bostad became offensive line coach in the NFL for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Bielema said bridging the gap between Bostad’s teaching philosophies and the philosophies of the five other new assistant coaches on staff this season was the reason Miller landed the job.
Miller, 27, was an offensive lineman at New Mexico from 2004-07 and played under Bostad before he left to coach at Wisconsin in 2006. Miller was brought on at Wisconsin because of his close relationship with Bostad and served as the Badgers’ offensive quality control coordinator.
Although Miller is unproven as a coach, Bielema has great faith in his abilities.
“I don’t know if I would have made the move if I didn’t feel so good about (Markuson’s) replacement,” Bielema said.
As for the strange timing of the move, Bielema said he learned a valuable lesson as a young assistant coach when he served on a staff with other coaches who “weren’t where we needed to be as a staff, and it hurt everybody overall.”
Bielema told himself that if he ever found himself in a similar position as a head coach, he wouldn’t wait until the end of the season to make a change.
“I’ve seen a lot of coaches make this decision at the end of the year, and they probably knew it sooner than I did — they just don’t want to cause the waves,” Bielema said. “And I’m not one that is scared of high waves.”
Bielema did not say specifically what changes Markuson made that affected the offensive line, but it appears the biggest point of contention involved technique. Although Bielema believes the offensive line will improve, he acknowledged it would take time before it plays at the same level as the 2010 and 2011 Wisconsin teams, which each reached the Rose Bowl.
“I’m not naïve to the fact we’re not going to turn into what we’ve fortunately been able to accomplish in the past overnight,” Bielema said. “But we’re going to take some baby steps and my guess is we’re going to have a great amount of change in a short amount of time. It wasn’t like they were doing everything horribly. There’s some things we’ve got to get cleaned up.”
That starts on Saturday, when Wisconsin hosts Utah State, which is coming off a surprising 27-20 overtime victory over in-state rival and Pac-12 foe Utah.
Before Wisconsin’s loss to Oregon State, Bielema had been a perfect 25-0 in regular-season nonconference games during his seven-year tenure as Badgers coach. He’ll look to start a new streak against the Aggies after making a coaching move that is sure to be heavily scrutinized.
“It’s interesting to me that after one nonconference loss, people think that maybe I don’t know what I’m doing,” Bielema said. “I find that very challenging, to say the least.”