University of Wisconsin junior tight end Jacob Pedersen didn’t have to see the difference in practice on Tuesday. He could hear it.
“Finally, you were hearing some pads hit again,” Pedersen said of the offensive line following the workout. “That was good to see.”
The Badgers returned to the practice field after a tumultuous few days that started with an ugly offensive performance in the 10-7 loss on Saturday at Oregon State.
That was followed by UW coach Bret Bielema’s decision on Sunday to fire veteran offensive line coach Mike Markuson and give the job to graduate assistant Bart Miller.
If the first practice since the change was an indication, the Badgers are returning to the kind of offense they want to be.
Bielema made only five players and four assistant coaches from the offense available for interviews. Miller was not included in the group and the only offensive lineman was senior left tackle Ricky Wagner.
The consensus: It was one of UW’s best practices of the year, which may not have had as much to do with Markuson’s departure as the sting that remains after the loss.
Wagner said the offensive linemen were surprised on Sunday when they found out about the change, but it shouldn’t change much for them.
“It doesn’t affect anything we’re doing,” Wagner said. “We’re real motivated. (Tuesday) was one of the best practices we had all year.”
When Miller addressed the offensive linemen for the first time as their position coach, his message was about returning to the way the line played the previous two seasons.
“The first couple things he said, he explained the situation,” Wagner said. “He wanted to get through to us, we’re going to be the O-line of the past couple years here. We still have all of the skills, we have the same personnel, we’ve just got to show it.”
It was clear from Wagner that the offensive linemen have a comfort level with Miller, 27, in his second year with the Badgers.
Wagner said Miller has been heavily involved in all aspects of the offensive line.
“He’s been right alongside us the last two years,” Wagner said. “He was just like a second coach. He knows everything, I have a lot of confidence in him and love his coaching style.”
As for Miller being just a couple years older than the players, Wagner said it’s not an issue.
“His knowledge is unbelievable and that commands respect,” Wagner said. “I have all of the respect for him and I know everybody in the O-line does, too.”
This was going to be a tough week for the offensive line anyway, facing a Utah State defense that will pose significant issues on Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Aggies show a variety of different fronts, blitzes and movement out of their 3-4 defense.
“They’re a very aggressive defense, a very skilled defense, really fast,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “It’ll be a challenge for any offense.”
The Aggies like to stunt and jump around before the snap, trying to entice the offensive linemen to jump before the snap.
But even with all of the speed and movement, it’s a defense that showed it can be physical in the 27-20 overtime victory over Utah last week.
“They do come on quite a few blitzes,” Pedersen said. “At the same time, they’re going to play you strong up front. They’ve got some physical guys who are going to hit you.”
Wagner said the line is embracing the turmoil of the past week and the added scrutiny that comes with it.
“I think this group definitely embraces adversity,” he said. “We’re real excited, we want the pressure back on the O-line. We want it to be on us.”
While the focus has been on the line, Canada said the entire offense needs to improve.
“They understand we’ve got to play better,” Canada said of the players. “We have great kids who work very hard year-round, who understand they didn’t play well enough on Saturday in different areas.
“The bottom line: It’s not close enough to what we expect from our offense and the way we’re going to play.”
One practice wasn’t going to fix everything, just like switching offensive line coaches likely won’t transform the line overnight into the overpowering unit fans are used to seeing. But the players expect things to get better and this was a start.
“We’re excited to get to Saturday, especially after today,” Pedersen said afterward. “I thought it was a great practice and I wish it was Saturday tomorrow.
“We’re anxious and ready to get out there.”