MADISON, Wis. — Reflections 80 days after Wisconsin’s worst performance of the football season come with the kind of blunt, honest criticism members of the team’s offensive line couldn’t diagnose when they were too close to the situation.
Back on Sept. 8, they had no answers. Wisconsin lost a stunning 10-7 decision at Oregon State that day, and the Badgers’ flaws were obvious. A program that had prided itself for decades on brute force up front and running the ball down defenders’ throats seemingly couldn’t muster an inch. The offensive line was being blown back at the line of scrimmage, and running backs were stuffed and devoured like a Thanksgiving Day turkey.
Wisconsin rushed 23 times for a grand total of 35 yards. And for the first time in 21 games, Badgers running back Montee Ball failed to score a touchdown. It was ugly, frustrating and so unlike Wisconsin football of years past.
“A debacle,” Badgers offensive line coach Bart Miller said.
“We didn’t execute well,” Wisconsin center Travis Frederick added. “We didn’t play physically, and we weren’t doing the things that we do here at Wisconsin.”
Badgers coach Bret Bielema was seething about the lack of progress and knew someone needed to be held accountable. The next day, he met with offensive line coach Mike Markuson and fired him after just two games with the program. He then promoted Miller from graduate assistant to offensive line coach.
During a team gathering that Sunday, Bielema kept the offense behind as the defense went to positional meetings. He informed them of his decision to fire Markuson, prompting dropped jaws and silence.
“That was mind blowing,” Badgers left guard Ryan Groy said. “It’s something I never expected. I’d never heard of that happening before. It was different for all of us.”
Bielema made it clear that more was expected of the big boys up front. Markuson, a highly successful offensive line coach at Arkansas and Ole Miss, had begun teaching players a different method of blocking. Essentially, he wanted a more side-to-side scheme that focused on 1-on-1 matchups rather than a downfield attack that emphasized double teams and physicality.
It didn’t mesh with Wisconsin’s traditional style of play, and linemen continued to fall off blocks too soon.
“Once you really, truly believe in something, it’s hard to go to something else,” Groy said. “If you really believe in something and somebody is telling you that this is better, it’s tough to realize that they’re right. It’s tough to accept something like that. It was tough for all of us.”
Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist last year, could tell something needed to change or his senior season would end in underwhelming fashion.
“Us running backs, we most definitely saw a difference,” Ball said. “We weren’t comfortable because they weren’t comfortable and that kind of threw off our entire offense.”
The story of the 2012 Wisconsin offensive line could have ended there. A unit seemingly in disarray could have squabbled internally and collapsed entirely when Miller was tasked with reshaping the line. Instead, the linemen doggedly chased Miller’s vision to mold the offensive line in the style of former unit coach Bob Bostad, who left the program after last season and now coaches the offensive line for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
To some, Bielema’s move reeked of desperation. One loss, and he was already jumping off the ship. But results this season have lent credence to his decision. Though it hasn’t been perfect, Wisconsin’s offensive line has made considerable gains since Miller took over.
“It was a pretty significant change, what we were trying to do,” Miller said. “Some of the drills we do are a lot different. The techniques are a lot different. The way the room is run, the mentality of the room, the culture of the room, all those things have changed to be more like it was before.”
Miller didn’t have much time to introduce his schemes, but he slowly built back the line, creating a more physical unit that focused on maintaining a push off the ball.
By Tuesday’s practice, two days after Markuson’s firing, Bielema said he heard others on the team noticing a distinct difference.
“Just about the different approach to coming off the football and the physicality aspect that we kind of preach here on a daily basis,” Bielema said. “I would say early in Big Ten play, I knew I had made the right decision.”
Wisconsin’s offensive line and running game showed flashes of Badgers teams from past seasons early against Nebraska on Sept. 29 and late against Illinois on Oct. 6. Then, the floodgates opened.
Wisconsin gained 467 yards rushing and scored four touchdowns against Purdue — “Domination,” Miller said. One week later against Minnesota, Wisconsin tallied 337 yards on the ground with five touchdowns. And on Nov. 10, Wisconsin set a school record with 564 rushing yards while scoring seven touchdowns.
In the process, the Badgers shot up the national rushing rankings. After two weeks, Wisconsin ranked 103rd nationally in rushing offense and averaged 2.9 yards per carry. Now, Wisconsin ranks 23rd in rushing offense and is averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
Certainly, the line of left tackle Ricky Wagner, Groy, Frederick, right guard Kyle Costigan and right tackle Rob Havenstein still has flaws. During games against Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State over the past five weeks, the Badgers haven’t run the ball as effectively as they’d like. Not coincidentally, Wisconsin lost all three games.
Still, the overall improvement during an 80-day span is obvious, and continued success at the line of scrimmage will be vital if Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4 in conference play) is to upend Nebraska (10-2, 7-1) on Saturday in the Big Ten championship.
Without question, this season has been a study in perseverance for the offensive line. And Ball, for one, has gained a greater sense of admiration for the big men blocking up front.
“I appreciated them last year,” Ball said. “I think after the coaching change and seeing how important they really are to any team, I kind of appreciate them a lot more.”