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MADISON - Although citing part personal and part performance reasons, there’s only one stat Wisconsin fans need to know about why coach Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after only two games into his tenure.
Through two games – one at home against a Football Championship Subdivision and one at Oregon State – the Badgers are LAST in the Big Ten in rushing offense, averaging only 101.5 yards per game. For a program that recruits to and wins games based on establishing the running game, Bielema knew he needed to make a switch.
“It was at a point on Sunday where I contact people to make sure a transition could happen,” said Bielema, who informed Markuson of his decision Sunday afternoon. “I had a conversation with him and really wished it was going to end the way it did … For a lot of personal matters and things specific to the program, decided to move on in transition.”
Bielema said Markuson had been dealing with some family issues with a daughter a freshman in college and a son being a senior in high school. Markuson’s family remained in Mississippi while Markuson coached in Madison.
“I think he’s going to make a transition back there and see where the next step takes him,” said Bielema. “I wish him the best of luck.”
Bielema said the decision to dismiss Markuson wasn’t a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction, but something he had been thinking about previously and really delve into on the team’s four-hour plane flight back home.
Wisconsin (1-1) is tied for 104th in the nation in rushing average (2.90 yds/att), having only gained 267 yards on 70 carries (2.9 yards per carry) in its first two games this season. In the Badgers’ loss at Oregon State Saturday, Wisconsin managed just 35 rushing yards on 23 attempts and converted 2 of 14 third-down chances, consistently getting little to no push in the trenches.
Quarterback Danny O’Brien was sacked three times for a loss of 35 rushing yards and lost a fumble in the red zone, adding to the woes of an offense that is only averaging 16.7 points per game a year removed from averaging 44.1.
“I kind of made the best out of a situation,” said Bielema, as Wisconsin has rushed for more than 3,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. “As a head coach, I know that I am responsible for every player, every coach, every family, every support staff. I just felt as a head coach, I need to make some decisions every once in awhile that aren’t going to be popular and from the outside world looking in may not make the most sense.
“As a head coach, I know how to win games. I know how to win championships. The decision that I made I am going to stick with and go forward.”
Bart Miller, in his second season as UW’s offensive quality control coordinator, has been tabbed to replace Markuson. Markuson, 51, was touted for his experience (having coached the last 14 seasons in the Southeastern Conference) and developing players (coaching six All-Americans since 2003) when he was hired to replace Bob Bostad, who is now with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a brief stop with the University of Pittsburgh.
The transition, however, between Markuson – one of six assistants hired by Bielema in the offseason - and the offensive line was far from smooth. Having to replace three starters, players admitted they were frustrated with adapting to the new changes and philosophies being brought to the table and that they were still working through it.
“(Last week) was the first time we ever had a game rep under coach Markuson and coach Canada,” junior center and captain Travis Frederick said after the game Saturday. “There was a few different things. I thought we worked through those.”
After dropping from No.13 to out of the Associated Press poll, Wisconsin hosts Utah State (2-0) at 7 p.m. Saturday. The Aggies recorded a 27-20 overtime victory over Utah on Friday, their first victory over the Utes in 12 tries, and are 20th nationally against the run (76.0 ypg, 2.2 ypc).
“There offense is very dynamic,” said Bielema. “They bring a lot of pressures and create big-play opportunities on defense. We’ll have to buckle into what our game plan is, be sharp in what we’re doing and be able to execute on Saturday. They are a very, very good football team.”
A part of four bowl teams, Miller, a native of Omaha, Ne., was a starter at right guard and two-year letterman for the Lobos on the offensive line, earning Academic All-Mountain West Conference honors as a junior and senior. Prior to coming to Wisconsin, Miller worked as a graduate assistant at New Mexico State, working primarily with the offensive line. Bostad was an assistant at New Mexico before coming to Wisconsin in 2006, having coached Miller in 2004 and ‘05.
That hopefully will boost the confidence of the line and Montee Ball. A Heisman finalist who rushed for 1,923 yards, averaged 6.3 yards per carry and 33 touchdowns as a junior, Ball has rushed 47 times for 181 yards (3.9-yard average) and a touchdown in two games.
“I think the guys that have been in the program and the ones who have left think very highly of him,” said Bielema of Miller. “I don’t know if I would have made the move if I didn’t feel so good about his replacement. I give Bart his opportunity to hop into this role. A guy that can maybe marriage the bridge that we need right now with the offensive line – a little bit of how he was coached as a player, where he learned his football the last couple years with us and then being a part of coach Canada’s offense and the staff since last January to where we are now.”
“I think he is hungry to coach. That is very apparent.”
Bret Bielema press conference - Listen to Audio