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Badgers football: Offense was power struggle for Matt Canada, Bret Bielema

2012-12-29T11:00:00Z 2013-01-21T17:51:05Z Badgers football: Offense was power struggle for Matt Canada, Bret BielemaTOM MULHERN | Wisconsin State Journal | tmulhern@madison.com | 608-252-6169 madison.com

LOS ANGELES — After 12 games as offensive coordinator for the University of Wisconsin football team, Matt Canada finally had enough.

Prior to the Big Ten Conference title game against Nebraska, Canada went in to talk to former UW coach Bret Bielema and at long last put his foot down. Sink or swim, it was time for Canada to do things his way.

Numerous UW sources said Canada's decision to stand up to Bielema was a significant factor in the offensive outburst that followed. The Badgers amassed 640 yards, including 539 on the ground, in the 70-31 victory over Nebraska on Dec. 1, sending UW to the Rose Bowl where it will face Stanford on Tuesday.

The brilliant game plan stands as a crowning achievement in Canada's 21 seasons in college coaching, but it wouldn't have happened if he had not fought for the things he believed in.

The sources for this story — who are close to the football program and the coaching staff — spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were told the information in confidence.

Canada was asked this week if he'd ever called a game in which everything seemed to work as well as it did against Nebraska.

"That was a special night," he said, simply. "No doubt about it."

Canada acknowledged the meeting with Bielema but downplayed its significance.

"Bret and I talked every week," Canada said. "There wasn't any clearing of the air."

But the Badgers certainly looked like a different offense in that game — Canada's offense — unveiling a variety of formations, trick plays and things UW had not shown all season.

Bielema, who has a defensive background, got more heavily involved in the offense after the departure of coordinator Paul Chryst after last season.

According to the sources, Bielema railed against the use of fly sweeps — with running backs or wide receivers going in motion behind the quarterback, sometimes getting the ball or just forcing the defense to honor the edges — and thought the Badgers should have been good enough to simply be a power running team.

But they weren't good enough, especially at the start of the season, with the departure of seven starters off the record-setting 2011 offense that averaged 44.1 points per game.

A dispute over one of the plays Canada installed for the Big Ten title game highlighted the differences between Bielema and Canada.

The play, according to the sources, was run out of the Barge formation, in which tailback James White was at quarterback and handed the ball to tailback Montee Ball on a fly sweep.

Bielema didn't like how the tight end on the play side kicked out to make a block in the alley and wanted to change the play. There was also the risk of one tailback handing off to another and, in fact, when the play was run in the game Ball slightly bobbled the handoff.

After Bielema relented and gave his consent to run the play the way Canada wanted, Ball scored the first of his three touchdowns on it, a 16-yard run around left end in which he dove for the pylon from the 4-yard line to put UW ahead 35-10.

"There's risk and reward," Canada said when asked about the play. "If we would have fumbled that and the game was close, everyone would be saying, 'You've got James White handing it to Montee Ball.' "

Bielema's more heavy-handed tactics during the season, according to the sources, included overruling some of Canada's play calls on the coaches' headset during games.

Canada didn't dismiss that directly but said he takes responsibility for all of the calls during the season.

"I would say, I called every play," he said. "There are a lot of things that go into offensive football. We all were involved. We have a great staff. We tried to do the best we could."

It has undoubtedly been a trying season for Canada, who thought he'd landed his dream job and hoped to be here for a long time — certainly long enough for his daughter, a freshman, to finish high school in Verona.

Instead, he's uprooting his family again after one year and leaving after the Rose Bowl to become the offensive coordinator at North Carolina State.

Not only did Canada follow a popular and successful coordinator in Chryst, the offense bogged down early with issues at quarterback, an injury to the team's only threat at wide receiver in Jared Abbrederis and a rare coaching switch on the offensive line, with the firing of Mike Markuson and the promotion of graduate assistant Bart Miller.

Bielema said the 70 points against Nebraska were a sign of how much the offensive staff grew this season.

"We prepared for the Big Ten championship game just like we had all year," Bielema said in a telephone interview last weekend when asked about the meeting with Canada. "The part that really, I think, showed up in that game is we prepared with an attitude all week.

"That was something I really saw come out. Offense, defense and special teams, we practiced some things that hadn't showed up and they finally showed up in the Nebraska game, obviously, with great results."

Still, behind the scenes, it was an ongoing struggle for control of the offense, according to the sources.

Canada acknowledged one mistake he made was sticking with the things that had been successful at UW in the past for too long.

"Early on, the respect I had for what Wisconsin is and the system that was there, that was probably the biggest (failure) — I tried to just keep doing what has always been done and we needed to do some different things," he said.

Canada started tweaking the offense as the season went along. He unveiled the Barge, with White at quarterback and extra linemen, a formation Canada had used previously. He also introduced more shifts and motions, with great success.

The Badgers averaged 16.3 points and 276 yards in the first three games, then 35.1 points and 437.7 yards over the last 10.

"I'll take all of the accountability for us maybe not getting off to the best start we could," Canada said. "It was finding the right fits, finding the right guys, certain players growing into their roles. We lost a lot of very good players. We had to find our niche. I think we did that."

Bielema denied he overruled any of Canada's calls during a game.

"I never once said, 'No, don't call that,' " Bielema said. "That's probably more coffee talk than anything. I have a great relationship with Matt. I treated Matt the same way I treated Paul.

"The part that was really fun for me was to see was Matt grow, obviously, with a very, very difficult staffing situation."

While things didn't work out as he hoped, Canada said he has no issues with his working relationship with Bielema.

"I appreciate him hiring me to come work at Wisconsin," Canada said. "No issues, no problems. Everything was good."

Canada took the heat all season for any offensive shortcomings, always accepting responsibility when things didn't work out.

One of the things Canada is proudest of was when an offensive player, whom he declined to name, thanked him for his approach to the Big Ten title game.

"Probably the proudest thing I had, one of our good players, just saying after it was over, 'Coach, I appreciate you taking every shot (and) standing behind us,' " Canada said.

"There wasn't any finger pointing throughout the year. For me personally, that's my proudest (moment), 'Coach you took every shot and didn't ever point a finger.' "

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(17) Comments

  1. Report Abuse
    - January 02, 2013 1:30 pm
    After watching the very conservative, predictable play calling in the Rose Bowl, I guess we won't have to worry about missing Canada next season. Dorean can have him.
  2. jumping jack flash
    Report Abuse
    jumping jack flash - December 30, 2012 6:34 pm
    Please never reveal your true name as you sound as dumb as a door knob. I think it's great to have an opinion on a coach...it's why they call people "fans", yet posting something as dumb as this truely hurts the other relevant and well dictated posts. If you will, posts like this water down this site. Living with his parents? Really?
    Showgirl in Vegas? He met his wife in Vegas, yet she was from Florida and on vacation.
    The only thing accurate on this post is that you don't follow the Badger closely. I would have never guessed. Please stop wasting people's time and your own by sending something as elementary as this.
    This "dumb guy" is making 3.2 million and has a 5 year guarantee...and he was smart enough to surround himself with good people so they could win 3 BT Championships in a row. Whether you like him or not...the facts are the facts.
  3. Report Abuse
    - December 30, 2012 11:24 am
    I didn't like BB, but I'm not going to pile on based on this. As head coacj he has ultimate responsibility over the program. As a first year OC I'm not surprised that BB put a few limits on Canada...that is his job. As the year went on and the 2 worked together and ommunicated BB finally gave in and allowed Canada more freedom. You have to prove your point and show the head coach that it will work. It does seem obvious that Canada was right and his plays and schemes did work great against Neb. Obviously BB had ideas of leaving already and maybe he just figured what the heck. Regardless it was great to see thm open up and put the ball in the hands of their multiple playmakers and speedy RBs.
    IMO Canada will enjoy more success in his next job than BB will.
  4. Homer717
    Report Abuse
    Homer717 - December 30, 2012 6:36 am
    As dim as Bielema was, the IQ of the state of Arkansas increased by 1/2 point with him moving there. I'll give him his props for what he did at UW but the change is good.
  5. Big_Joe
    Report Abuse
    Big_Joe - December 30, 2012 6:35 am
    When Barry decided to retire from the coaching position the rap at the time was that "he saw the writing on the wall." No talent in the pipeline, etc. Then when Bielema goes 10-2 out of the gate the rap was "he inherited Alvarez' players." As Bielema continued to win (10 years folks--his record was equal to or better than Alvarez) the rap became "he can't win the big games."

    I smell a fabricated "hate" controversy in this article. I would wager that many of the Bielema haters were Alvarez haters as well.
  6. Fflambeau
    Report Abuse
    Fflambeau - December 30, 2012 1:22 am
    Finally, confirmation of several things: 1) BB was as bad as most of us thought, from the beginning. Barry made a huge mistake anointing him and ignoring hiring rules; he's done much better by following procedures. 2) this likely explains the exodus of all those coaches last year, especially Chryst. Probably BB didn't like the idea too of his "successor" (Chryst) being around. 3) the media failed in a major way. This friction didn't build up just recently. It must have begun years ago. How many coaches lose as many assistants as BB? Gary Anderson's staff WANTS to play for him and follows him! Journalists are simply overpaid hacks these days.
  7. truegangsteroflove
    Report Abuse
    truegangsteroflove - December 29, 2012 8:16 pm
    It's nice when your intuition is correct. I always thought Bielema was a curious pick for head coach. He looked to be Alvarez's hand pick for reasons of easy control. From day one he just seemed like a dumb guy with no personality. One of the local TV stations did a feature on him, and showed him having dinner with his parents every night. A Big 10 head coach who lived with his parents.

    Then he met a showgirl in Las Vegas, and voila, independent life. The thing that amazes me is how he was able to win. I don't follow the Badgers that closely, but it seems to be a combination of luck, recruiting, a weak spell in the Big Ten, and good assistant coaches. I suspect that even for his mentor Barry Alvarez his departure was a relief. The UW even made some money from it. Even if he doesn't win big, the new coach is a huge improvement. He has a personality.
  8. Bigtenwi
    Report Abuse
    Bigtenwi - December 29, 2012 5:13 pm
    its was odd that all of a sudden the could play the way they played in championship game...
  9. Barffart
    Report Abuse
    Barffart - December 29, 2012 4:00 pm
    We'll never forget you Brent!
  10. FARTRADE1
    Report Abuse
    FARTRADE1 - December 29, 2012 3:31 pm
    The most damning indictment yet of Fart Beelima being what so many suspected given his performance s special teams coach. I feel bad for the kids he'll be coaching in Arkansas. I suspect this may be where the friction between Chryst and Alvarez may stem from. Chryst may have repeatedly pointed out that the emperor wore no clothes,only to be ignored. Bart's H stupid confused expression will look more appropriate when he's is consistently beaten like a drum in the SEC. He will be named head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes around two years from today after two losing seasons in Arkansas.
  11. onwisconsin1
    Report Abuse
    onwisconsin1 - December 29, 2012 12:39 pm
    ...really looking forward to watching Arkansas/LSU play for the first time, lol. Last year with Wilson was very disappointing. That team deserved better coaching.
  12. jumping jack flash
    Report Abuse
    jumping jack flash - December 29, 2012 10:35 am
    nice article, TM. "Anonymous Sources" make up this article. Not one bit of information on this so-called power struggle out of the two coaches; just hear say. very weak.
  13. OnWisco07
    Report Abuse
    OnWisco07 - December 29, 2012 9:51 am
    Really wish the Ludwig rumors weren't true and Coach A would treat the Rose Bowl as Canada's interview. He wants to be here, can do great things when not handcuffed by BB and, (from what I hear) was the osnly coach to call B.S. on Bielema for his snarky comments and abandoning the team. Just pay his buyout and get him back, Alvarez!
  14. Bud
    Report Abuse
    Bud - December 29, 2012 9:18 am
    Another brillant example of Bart Bielema's game day coaching ability. I hope suie pig enjoy's watching him bumble games away like he's done over the last 2 years here.
  15. Norwood44
    Report Abuse
    Norwood44 - December 29, 2012 6:44 am
    Canada had to learn to do what Chryst did. Ignore Bielema.
  16. Ballblaster
    Report Abuse
    Ballblaster - December 29, 2012 6:12 am
    Glad Canada "won out" in discussion with Bielema as BB's arrogance would be very difficult to convince. Barry may be very 'full of himself', but he earned it. Brett came in as if HE was Barry and looking down his nose on people. Plus, as we all found out, BB chokes in Big, close Games at the end of them. Bet Barry is glad he is gone, He did not have to fire the guy in a couple more years
  17. foodanddrink
    Report Abuse
    foodanddrink - December 29, 2012 6:01 am
    No surprise here. As we peel away the fatty layers of Coach B, we indeed see that he's exactly who we thought he was. Great riddance. I wish Canada the very best. I truly wish he'd stay.

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