by Sahil Shah
The 2011 season for the Badgers was successful in so many ways, especially in regards to offensive line play – opening holes for the running backs and protecting all-everything quarterback Russell Wilson. Their offensive success was in big part due to the play of the offensive line.
Last year as I was watching Wisconsin welcome Nebraska to the B1G to the tune of 48-17, a stat popped up on the television screen: the average height and weight of Wisconsin’s offensive line was 6’6” and 320 lbs – bigger than all but 2 NFL teams.
That number may be astounding to people unfamiliar with the Badger program, but to the Badger fanatics, it’s something to which we’ve been accustomed. Maybe even spoiled by. Penn State is known as “Linebacker U” for good reason, just as Wisconsin has recently (and more nationally) become known as “O-Line U.” Wisconsin breeds offensive linemen and is the foundation of the program since the Barry Alvarez era began in 1990.
The philosophy of recruiting and developing big, mobile linemen has allowed Wisconsin to have major success in the power running game. If the line could consistently open holes and get to the second level, it would be hard for the Badgers to lose. In 2006, Bob Bostad was hired to coach the offensive line and along with Paul Chryst’s offensive play calling, the Badgers enjoyed 2 conference titles and Rose Bowl berths in 2010 and 2011. In 2010, the Badgers were 4 yards shy of becoming the first school to ever have 3 1,000-yard running backs. They averaged 41.5 points per game that season. It’s hard to imagine a Badger team could sustain that kind offensive power, but they beat that record in 2011 by averaging 44.1 points per game. Montee Ball was a Heisman finalist after having rushed for 1,923 yards and scoring 39 touchdowns.
Chryst deservedly received the notoriety during his time at Wisconsin and it was inevitable that he would one day be a head coach somewhere else. It wasn’t long after that Bostad’s name was in the same sentence as being one of the best offensive line coaches in the country as well. In his 6 seasons at Wisconsin, Bostad coached former Outland Trophy winners Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi. After the 2010 season, 3 offensive linemen found themselves on NFL rosters. After the 2011 season, 2 more linemen were drafted by NFL teams. Replacing linemen wasn’t much of a concern for fans as we had been accustomed to that style of play for a while.
Then came the day Chryst announced he would take the head coaching position at Pitt and that Bostad would be going with him (Bostad would soon take the offensive line coaching position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Head coach Bret Bielema would soon learn that he would lose 4 more assistant coaches, and would have to replace 6 coaches in total going into the 2012 season. However, losing those Chryst and Bostad was a big hit to the program as replacing them would certainly not be easy.
During the offseason, I followed Badger football news to see who Bielema was interviewing to replace these coaches. Hearing about the hire of Matt Canada as offensive coordinator, I didn’t know what to think. Never heard of the guy but had success most recently at Northern Illinois. Then I heard about the hiring of Mark Markuson as the offensive line coach. Here comes a guy with over a decade of experience coaching the same position in the SEC under Houston Nutt. I and other fans alike were very excited about this hire – he was from a powerhouse conference and coached several great linemen including Michael Oher.
Entering the 2012 season, Montee Ball was an early favorite for the Heisman trophy. However, their non-conference slate opened people’s eyes to how really important Bostad was to the Wisconsin program. The offensive line could not open lanes for the running backs as Ball averaged less than 4 yards per carry in the first two games of the season. Sure we had questions at the quarterback and wide receiver positions, but everyone thought our offensive line and running game would be successful.
Markuson was subsequently fired and graduate assistant Bart Miller was promoted to coach the offensive line in hopes that the line would get back to the form it was in years past with Bob Bostad. At first, it seemed like a panic move by Bielema, but as I read Miller’s story and learned of his background, the more I felt better about the decision. Bostad was Miller’s mentor, and worked with him at New Mexico State and Wisconsin. Even current lineman Ryan Groy was quoted as saying, “…Oh, no, his little protégé (is) here” in reference to Miller taking over Markuson’s position.
It was later reported that Markuson’s philosophy didn’t mesh with the players and was not conducive to the power running game. The linemen could not get a low blocking position and further could not get to the second level to pave running lanes for the running backs. There was also a lack of communication between Markuson and the players. It was clear that Bielema and Wisconsin wanted to get back to that philosophy and Miller seemed to be the best fit as he spent time learning from Bostad and knew his philosophy.
During practices after that week, some of the linemen stated that the coaching was night and day between Markuson and Miller and that they were getting back to the Wisconsin of old. Each week, Wisconsin noticed incremental improvement in the running game as the team ran for 173 yards (5.24 avg) against Illinois, 467 yards (8.19 avg) at Purdue, and 337 yards (6.24 avg) against Minnesota in consecutive weeks, in what turned out to be their best stretch of games this season. Even though the games against Ohio State and Penn State resulted in overtime losses, Wisconsin still managed 206 yards and 158 yards respectively against two of the best rushing (and overall) defenses in the country.
It’s clear that Miller has brought back the schemes, techniques and philosophy that Bostad took with him to the NFL and that the firing of Markuson was the right call by Bielema. Miller should be kept on the staff as the offensive line coach going forward as he has proven to bring a spark back to the offensive line. He will also have the offseason to work with the linemen and form a better chemistry with the players going forward. As the team prepares to lose LT Ricky Wagner to the NFL, the Badgers should be stout on the offensive line once again next season, especially with Bart Miller leading the way. Assuming C Travis Frederick comes back for his final year, the line should be strong yet again.