Ball, No. 12 Wisconsin open against Northern Iowa
MADISON, Wis. (AP)
Montee Ball is about to get a chance to leave recent off-the-field troubles in the past.
While any returning Heisman Trophy finalist would expect to be heavily scrutinized, even more attention than usual will be on Ball when No. 12 Wisconsin opens the season Saturday against Northern Iowa at Camp Randall Stadium.
Ball was beaten up near campus a month ago, leaving him with a concussion that caused him to miss part of camp. Then he had to answer questions about the circumstances that may have led to the incident.
''Everyone's looking to see how I'm going to respond after what I dealt with,'' Ball said. ''I want to make sure I respond in a great way.''
Three men were arrested in connection with the incident this week. Previously, police have said that the attack on Ball may have been related to an earlier fight involving Wisconsin football players. Ball - who also was ticketed for trespassing during a Madison block party earlier in the offseason - has denied involvement in the earlier fight, and is hoping to move on.
''I dealt with a lot over the summer, but once adversity strikes, you've got to respond,'' Ball said.
Ball, who scored 39 touchdowns to tie Barry Sanders' NCAA record last season, and the Badgers' typically mammoth offensive line lead a running game that averaged 235.57 yards rushing per game last season - 11th-best in the country. Behind Ball are two other talented backs, James White and Melvin Gordon, who also are expected to get their fair share of carries this season.
Northern Iowa is ranked No. 7 in a preseason FCS coaches' poll, and has given FBS teams trouble in recent years.
The Panthers beat Iowa State in 2007 and nearly beat the Cyclones again last year, losing 20-19 after blowing a late lead. Northern Iowa lost 17-16 at Iowa in 2009 after having a pair of late field goal attempts blocked.
''All the coaches make sure to tell us about that, so we approach them just like we approach Ohio State and Michigan State. ... They're a pretty good team,'' Ball said. ''We've got to make sure that we play our game, or they'll shock us.''
Badgers coach Bret Bielema figures the Panthers will try to stop the run first.
''They are going to crowd the box,'' Bielema said. ''I'm sure they're going to try to make us throw the football if we have to. And they know we've got a first-year starter in Danny O'Brien here at Wisconsin as well.''
While Bielema is opening the season with several new assistant coaches - including new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, after Paul Chryst left to take over as the head coach at Pittsburgh - the Badgers' biggest question on offense is the play of O'Brien.
O'Brien won the starting job in camp after transferring from Maryland. And while he's likely to face comparisons to last year's transfer sensation, Russell Wilson, O'Brien is doing his best to put that aside and play within the framework of the offense.
''I'm ready for it from the outside, but it's something that I knew before I even came here that it was going to be brought up,'' O'Brien said.
O'Brien said he's looking forward to the atmosphere at Camp Randall, and Bielema hopes he doesn't have too many nerves in his first home start.
''Camp Randall is a very electric environment,'' Bielema said. ''And on the same account, even at the home stadium that can cause some people to get some jitters. It's going to be important for him to start off very, very positive.''
Ball expects the Badgers to be just as explosive on offense as they were last year, when they scored 44.14 points per game last season, sixth-best in the nation.
''Yes, I do,'' Ball said. ''I honestly do. ... We have some key weapons on offense that are going to put some numbers on the board.''
Bielema said offensive fireworks are nice, but victories are more important.
''You know me, I'm probably just worried about the final score,'' Bielema said. ''As long as we've got one more than they do, I really don't care. We're not into setting records or putting up numbers. But it's a byproduct of what we've done. I think that's encouraging.''
Connect with AP Sports Writer Chris Jenkins: www.twitter.com/ByChrisJenkins