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Friday, May 27, 2022

Column: Impact of Markuson’s firing yet to be seen

When any sports season concludes, one of the most interesting exercises is to look back at defining moments. Sometimes, anybody that’s watching knows one when they see it live. Other times, the moments are shrouded and only become apparent in their importance much later. Occasionally, something appears to be a season-defining moment and it turns out not to be.

In 2011, everybody knew the loss at Michigan State Oct. 22 was huge. With the clock at zero and the referees looking over replay after replay of Kirk Cousins’ Hail Mary pass to Keith Nichol, it was obvious then-No. 4 Wisconsin had its national title hopes hanging in the balance. The next week, most figured another late loss against Ohio State ended the Badgers’ Rose Bowl hopes. The post-game interviews in Columbus certainly had that feel. As it turned out, it wasn’t true.

In 2010, not everybody would have immediately pegged Jay Valai’s blocked extra point September 18 as a defining moment, but it preserved a 20-19 win against Arizona State at Camp Randall. UW lost two weeks later on the road against Michigan State, and wins against then-No. 1 Ohio State and No. 15 Iowa back-to-back weeks conjure up the most memories, but imagine how different the season would have felt had that loss to MSU dropped Wisconsin to 3-2. They ended up in the Rose Bowl that year as well.

All of those moments have one thing in common. They happened on the field. This week has an eerily similar feel of weight to it around the Camp Randall facilities, but the crossroads is largely being navigated behind closed doors.

The Badgers, ranked No. 13 to start the year, lost their first non-conference regular season game in the tenure of head coach Bret Bielema Saturday. What is widely considered one of the two deepest and most talented backfields in the country—behind maybe only Alabama—currently checks in at No. 103 nationally at 101.5 rushing yards per game. The offensive line, normally available to the state Department of Transportation to pave Interstate corridors, has looked more like a Prius navigating a boulder field. Forward progress has been difficult to come by.

The last eight months have been dedicated to building cohesion amongst a coaching staff that has six new faces and is attempting to transfer that synergy to the players in spring and fall camps. When the Badgers managed just 207 yards of offense Saturday against Oregon State, senior running back Montee Ball said something that sounded remarkably like Aaron Henry last year after the loss to the Spartans and J.J. Watt the year before in the same East Lansing, Mich., media room.

“All we have is each other, and that’s what we’re going to focus on this week,” Ball said.

That has been how the UW program has made it through the adversity—a relatively few number of instances, considering the college football landscape these days—in Bielema’s most successful years in Madison. They’ve hunkered down, come together and pushed forward.

Only this time, the head coach jettisoned the most experienced assistant he brought in this offseason.

I’m not saying the Badgers can’t still come together, and I’m not saying there’s no such thing as addition by subtraction. While it’s fair to question the move—it’s certainly out of the ordinary—it’s obviously not possible to provide a full critique before we see it in action.

Therein lies another issue, though. Will we be able to determine whether or not the move worked? Both Ball and quarterback Danny O’Brien said they thought the offense was one big play away from regaining some swagger. It’s hard to imagine the unit would have stayed so bad for the entire season. Then again, who knows.

So if the Badgers lose Saturday, what then? You can’t expect 44 points a game from here on out, but can we expect a good amount of improvement from the offensive line after six days with a new position coach? What if they win the Leaders division and play really well the rest of the season? Does this move get credit for that?

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All we can really, definitively say is that it’s unusual to let an assistant coach go two games into the year and also that the offensive production needs to get better in a hurry. Beyond that, it’s a lot of guessing.

That’s not to downplay the magnitude of the move, though. The spectrum of results for this 2012 team is enormous. The offense we’ve seen through two games can’t beat Ohio State and Michigan State at home and can’t beat Nebraska or Purdue on the road. However, if the offensive line returns to form at all, we all know UW has a pretty clear road to Indianapolis considering the sanctions in Columbus and at Penn State. Wisconsin looked like a 4-8 team Saturday. It still didn’t necessarily dash visions of a league title.

Figure that out.

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