Tag Archives: Bret Bielema

Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out

We Will Never Forget You Brent.

We will never forget you Brent.

By now, you’ve heard the news that Brent Bielema has taken his pullover to the dirty (in the truest sense) south: Arkansas. Lured, presumably, by extra coin, Brent will have the pleasure of getting stomped by Saban, Miles, and Co. in the vaunted SEC. Losing the head coach that has taken the Badgers to now three consecutive Rose Bowls is devastating for the program, right? Not so fast.

On the surface, there is little doubt that Brent had a great amount of success in Badger red: 68-24 overall record in 7 seasons, including a 37-19 clip in the Big Ten. Back-to-back-to-back Rose Bowl berths, bowl appearances every year, and teams that continually appear in the top-25 annually. And he won the Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 2006 when he led the team to a program record 12 wins. Gaudy numbers frankly. But, the numbers don’t reveal the whole story.

The key to Brent’s success is that he has beaten up on lesser programs en route to amassing these gaudy numbers. And his overall record against better programs are pedestrian for an alleged top-tier coach.

This is most notable in the fact that the Badgers have played one – let me repeat that, one – top-25 team during the pre-season slate of games. And that one team was the 21st ranked Fresno State in 2008. Yup, Fresno St. has been the “best” team the Badgers have faced heading into the season during Brent’s tenure.

The Badgers are 8-10 against ranked foes dating back to 2008. And Brent is 2-4 in bowl games (and would have been 2-5 had he coached through the Rose Bowl), including an unforgettable back-to-back stinging losses in the Rose Bowl. Not exactly impressive, is it?

But wait, there’s more to this point. Against the notable programs in the Big Ten – OSU, MSU, PSU, and Michigan (though UM was subject to the Rich Rodgriguez botched experiment during much of Brent’s tenure) – Brent’s record is similarly not impressive:

  • OSU – 1-5
  • MSU – 3-4
  • PSU – 2-3
  • UM – 3-2

The common criticisms of Brent have always been that he’s a poor game-day coach, insofar as his clock management, use of timeouts, and making adjustments. He was clearly out-coached in the last two Rose Bowls, particularly the TCU game. These shortcomings show the most when you play good programs with good coaches – evidenced by the less-than-stellar numbers above.

To his credit, Brent maintained status quo for a fringe-elite program that Alvarez had built from nothing. Though it seems easy to accomplish, ask Kansas State. And he did lead the Badgers to 3 Rose Bowls, all with players he had recruited. But, when you get past the overall numbers and take a deep look at what he accomplished at Wisconsin, losing Brent is not as detrimental to the program as many may think. And considering he’s willing to leave his team right before the Rose Bowl, well, don’t let the door hit you on your way out Brent!

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Quarterback Controversies? What Quarterback Controversies?

The 2012 edition of the tilt for Paul Bunyan’s Axe contains one exciting subplot after another. Can the Gophers bounce back from subpar performances against Iowa and Northwestern? Will the Badgers be able to maintain their momentum fresh off their most complete victory of the season? Is Coach Kill’s seizure issue becoming a distraction for the squad?

But all those issues are secondary to the indecision that has surrounded both programs at the most critical of positions: quarterback.

The Gophers have run out two different starters during the first six games of the season: Marqueis “Maybe I Should Be Playing WR” Gray and Max “Stop Comparing Me To Andy Dalton” Shortell. The Badgers have deployed the tandem of: Danny “Seriously, I Am Not Russell Wilson” O’Brien and Joel “Freshman This!” Stave.

Coach Kill has flip-flopped worse than Obama…I mean…Romney…I mean, blast, cannot make a political joke without alienating half the readers.

Most recently, the Gophers have seen both Gray and Shortell fail behind the helm. This has only fueled the speculation over who should start. And while starting Gray at wide receiver and letting Shortell grow into the QB position might be the best approach for the team’s success now and in the future, Gray produces just enough magic when behind the center to continue justify giving him another shot.

The game against Northwestern is a classic example. There were a half dozen plays where Gray used his athleticism to escape Wildcat pressure and make a positive play. Most times those plays were with his legs, but occasionally he would find an open receiver. Unfortunately, he does not do this consistently enough to solidify his claim to the starting role. Furthermore, putting Gray at wide receiver still ensures his athleticism is on the field while, at the same time, improving the Gophers at a position of need. Unfortunately, the Gophers seem reluctant to name Shortell the starter.

Interestingly enough, Coach Kill has had success with two starting QBs (see Chand Harnish and Jordan Lynch), but I am not sure that same strategy will work with Gray and Shortell. Further, if Gray has any hope of getting a real paycheck to play football…er….I mean….to play for real money….I mean…..to play on Sundays, he had better get used to the idea of catching the football. What better way than to start showcasing his talents now. Accept the Hines Ward conversion and hope you can even have half the career he did in the National Football League. Plus, making a decision will probably give Shortell a shot in the arm and we can find out what we have with him.

Now, the Badgers have dealt with their QB controversy a little more affirmatively (and it may be the reason they are printing these same t-shirts next year too).

O’Brien started the year. Struggled. Bielema went to freshman Joel Stave, despite little pressure to do so, and Stave has returned a mixed bag. What seemed like a desperation move has seemed to spark the offense to a certain extent. Stave’s numbers are not overly impressive, as he has completed a tick more than 58% of his passes (significantly less than Danny Boy). But he has had made more big plays, completing one pass for 50+ yard in 3 of his 4 starts (O’Brien only had 1 in his 3 starts). It is this type of stat that has many clamoring for Bielema to let Stave off the leash and let him sling it.

Tolzein was certainly not the flashiest of QBs, but he completed nearly 75% of his passes in 2010 and had only 6 INTs all season. Game. Manager.

But, this type of football is the norm for the Badgers. If any major football program is known for producing game mangers, it is Wisconsin. From Jim Sorgi to Scott Tolzein, the Badgers have consistently had guys that thrived at not making mistakes and systematically marching the squad down the field. The play-calling has limited Stave to the game manager mode. But, he has demonstrated (in limited opportunities) that he has the skill set to be something more. Once the play-calling expands, the offense could really take off.

All of that being said, it might be Bielema’s decision to make a decision and name Stave the starter that separates the Badgers from the Gophers (and maybe gives them an edge — which means more of these shirts too). The Gophers lack an identity because their coaches seem unwilling to pick a horse and go with it. Stave, for all his differences from the Wisconsin mold, is the starter. The team knows it. The fans know it. But, maybe most importantly, he knows it.

Ultimately, it is Stave’s self-confidence that just might be the difference in this Saturday’s rivalry game at Camp Randall. While the Gophers QBs struggle to assert themselves, Stave can march out there knowing he is the guy. Misguided or not, that kind of confidence can be the difference between making a play when it matters and doing something that hurts the team. Controversy? What controversy!

In Search of a Leader

Potential champs of the Leaders Division lack leadership from its Head Coach.

To say the Badgers 2012 football season has been disappointing is an understatement. Once a top team in the nation (according to those all-so-accurate pre-season polls), the current Badgers squad is lucky to be 4-2 – a decent record diluted by the strength of opponents faced. So what’s changed from the past two seasons that resulted in Rose Bowl berths? There’s been the roster turnover that every college program faces and an exodus of coaches following Cryst to Pitt. But the real issue resides in the supposed leader of the team: Bret Bielema.

We all know Bielema struggles with certain in-game coaching and went to the Andy Reid school of clock management. But beyond these typical blunders, Bielema’s leadership has failed this team.

When Paul Cryst left for what he thought was greener pastures, he took with him a number of assistant coaches. New to the program was Mike Markuson, former O-Line coach at a few SEC schools, who infused a new system of coaching. The new system just didn’t register with the Big Ten way of play and incumbent starters. After a paltry start to the run game, Bielema fired Markuson after two weeks.

The decision may have been the right decision. But, it’s a decision that wreaks of desperation only two games into the season. By firing Markuson two weeks into the season, it sends the wrong message to the team. The new coaches start worrying about their jobs, rather than the next opponent. And players start blaming the assistants for their poor play. In essence, blame is placed elsewhere, rather than on the coach and/or players.

And even if we assume that Bielema did the right thing in firing Markuson, it still falls back on him in the initial hiring. The replacement coach, Bart Miller, was with the program before and likely would have continued the previous system that has proven successful. Yes, Miller may be under-qualified, but if he’s proven himself to the point that he was quickly named the replacement coach, he likely had proven himself to be worthy of the hire in the off-season.

It takes a leader to embrace the issue, take the brunt of the blame, and work through it with the coaches and players. A quick-trigger in firing Markuson tries to dust the issue under the rug.

Another decision in the off-season has also cropped up early in the season. Like 2011 when the Badgers obtained free-agent Russell Wilson, the Badgers were able to sign another free-agent signal caller in Danny O’Brien. Of course, unfair expectations were placed upon O’Brien to replicate Wilson’s great season. Bielema smartly tried to separate the two and not allow the comparisons to be made. But this lasted briefly.

After the Badgers were fortunate enough to defeat Utah State (after another terrible timeout almost cost them the game), Bielema benched O’Brien in favor of walk-on Freshman Joel Stave. In the off-season, Bielema raved about O’Brien’s skill set and thrusted him into the starting role. Even with the offense sputtering with O’Brien under center, Bielema needed to further back O’Brien, continue to distance O’Brien from Wilson, and let him work through the inevitable bumps in the road that comes with a transfer and new offense for everyone.

And unlike Wilson, O’Brien has two years of eligibility in Badger red. He is the immediate future at the QB position, before paving the way for either Bart Houston, a four-star redshirted QB, or Chance Stewart, a newly signed stud recruit. By benching O’Brien in favor of a lightly recruited, redshirt Freshman Stave, Bielema likely has undermined O’Brien’s confidence going forward and he will not fulfill his potential in Badger red.

A leader was needed to calm the public’s concern over the offense. A leader was needed to further support the new QB and give him time to grow into the system. The team was still 2-1 at the time and had another non-conference game to hopefully improve. It was simply another quick-trigger, act of desperation in hopes of jump-starting the offense.

Now, I know you may be thinking – there’s some truth to that, but Stave has looked rather impressive and has the prototypical size for a QB. Putting aside the fact Stave is a redshirt Freshman walk-on (because talented players are often overlooked by the current recruiting business – yes, it’s a business), even Bielema doesn’t fully trust his new starter. Though Stave has played most of the minutes, O’Brien has subbed in randomly that is confusing to say the least. And Stave has had a tight leash during the two-minute drill, most noticeably at the end of the 1st half against a truly terrible Illinois team.

With timeouts somehow not blown through, the Badgers got the ball around their own 40 yard line with ample time to move the ball into field goal range, at least. Yet, the Badgers go 3-and-out on three play-calls that would have made Brad Childress blush. This play-calling and decision-making demonstrates Bielema’s true confidence in Stave. And it’s not pretty. And not the type of confidence a leader needs to have in a key player.

Sitting at 4-2 and struggling to every victory, the Badgers still have a realistic opportunity to win the Leaders division and return to the Big Ten Championship game. Because both Penn St. and Ohio St. are ineligible for post-season play, the division comes down to UW, Purdue, Indiana, and Illinois – not exactly murderer’s row in the Big Ten. It’s ironic that the Badgers should win the Leaders Division without a leader head coach.

Bret Bielema Experiencing Deja Vu

No, this isn’t the Friday night bi-annual visit to Deja Vu where Bielema “prepares” for the Golden Gophers game. Instead, Bielema hopes a case of deja vu leads the Badgers back to the Rose Bowl. Dipping into the well like Jeremy Roenick cutting across the crease going opposite corner in NHL ’94, Bielema has scooped up another “free agent” quarterback: Danny O’Brien.

Taking advantage of a loophole in eligibility requirements, O’Brien is taking his talents to the farmland for his two remaining years of eligibility after graduating from Maryland in three years – Tommy Boy he is not. A weird rule allows any player that graduates with eligibility left to transfer to another school and not sit out a year (which is normally required for a transfer) so long as the “student”-athlete enrolls in a graduate program that is not offered at his original school. Make sense? Of course it doesn’t. But, I’d like to think that this loophole plays right into the Badgers hands. Why you ask? Because there has to be a masters program in cheese-making, brewery, dairy-farming, or the like that other schools – like Maryland and N.C. State – of course don’t offer. Since the student part of student-athlete is an afterthought in the modern era of college sports, this is a loophole the Badgers should capitalize on.

In all fairness, what QB wouldn't have a terrible season throwing to players wearing these uniforms?

Trying the rule out for a one-year rental of Russell Wilson worked out quite well. So, why not try it for a two-year rental. O’Brien comes to UW with similar high accolades – having earned ACC rookie of the year honors in 2010 after leading the Terps to a 9-4 record behind 2,438 yards and 22 TD’s. And those 22 TD’s were offset by only 8 picks. Alas, the rookie year did not lead to bigger and better things in his sophomore year: 10 picks to just 7 TD’s. A broken non-throwing arm (mercifully) ended his season early in November. (Don’t worry. The injury did not require surgery and is healed… until he does his first keg stand at the Mifflin Block party.)

So, what exactly are the Badgers getting in Danny Boy? Are the Badgers getting the 22/8 version or the 7/10 version? Well, there’s some reason for optimism that Danny Boy is more like his freshman year than this past season. Last year was marred by a couple factors: (1) the coaching staff that recruited him to Maryland left after his first season, and (2) the new coaching staff not only implemented a new system (a run-and-shoot type offense compared to the pro-style offense he was recruited to quarterback), but also tinkered with the lineup to the extent of playing two QB’s during the game. Reports indicate that O’Brien can make it rain out there. During his freshman campaign, he showed a nice touch on throws, and could also zip it into some smaller windows. Remember, he was a freshman doing this.

Still, Bielema maintains the quarterback position is not promised to anyone. (Uh-huh, sure Bret.) The truth is: this is O’Brien’s job to lose. And this is based on both O’Brien’s limited track record at Maryland and the lack of options behind him. Before O’Briens signing – whoops, I meant transfer – the Badgers had only two healthy arms: Joe Brennan and Joel Stave. The other two signal-callers on the roster – Jon Budmayr and Curt Philips – are injured and their status for the fall is unknown still. Little is known about any of these quarterbacks ability to play at a high level in major college football. Getting Danny Boy was a coup, to say the least.

O’Brien, of course, will be compared to Wilson considering how both arrived on campus. But, O’Brien is not the next Wilson. One key difference Badgers fans will notice immediately between the two is the size and athleticism. Wilson is 6’0″ (allegedly) and could pull the ball down and run, and catch for that matter. O’Brien is 6’3″, 215 lbs., and not known for his running. He’s a more of a pure quarterback. Wilson was known for being a leader, and the verdict is still out regarding O’Brien’s leadership skills. O’Brien will always be linked to Wilson, but he’d be smart to quash all comparisons coming his way because it will be difficult to match Wilson’s success.

Bielema was smart getting O’Brien and he appears to be a good fit for what the Badgers need. So, Badger faithful, let’s raise up our Spotted Cow and toast to the President of UW for making this a unique graduate level study that allows Bielema to sign these college free agents. And, maybe if we’re lucky, two years of success following major free agent acquisitions could rub off on TT next off-season! (We can hope, can’t we!)