Elite tailbacks lead Ducks, Badgers into Rose Bowl
LOS ANGELES (AP)
LaMichael James figures most of the college football world has seen that priceless photo by now. Oregon's tailback was captured in one of those roller-coaster snapshots while riding Space Mountain at Disneyland on Monday.
''I hope his face doesn't look like that when we're missing blocks,'' Oregon offensive guard Carson York said.
James got a hearty laugh out the whole thing, welcoming it as a break from a serious week of preparation for a showdown between two of the most dynamic tailbacks in college football.
Although James' shifty speed contrasts with Ball's brute strength almost as sharply as Oregon's up-tempo spread offense clashes with Wisconsin's powerful old-school scheme, both backs have excelled against almost every defense they've faced this season.
''Our fans are going to see two of the best running backs in the sport,'' Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. ''It's a special opportunity. These two guys have done just about everything you can do.''
To top it off, the Rose Bowl with No. 6 Oregon facing No. 9 Wisconsin could be the last game in both junior stars' spectacular careers. James is widely expected to head to the NFL this spring, while Ball seems likely to capitalize on his record-breaking season with the departure of Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad for Pitt.
If this is the grand finale for James and Ball, Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti thinks fans should be grateful they're going out on the same field.
''We have two different types of offenses, but they are similar-type backs,'' Aliotti said. ''Guys that can hurt you inside because they run hard inside, and guys that can hurt you with their speed.''
James and Ball had never met before Oregon (11-2) and Wisconsin (11-2) converged on sunny Southern California this week. They've both been finalists for the Heisman Trophy and the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back, but their paths had never crossed.
''I don't really think there's a comparison between the two,'' James said. ''He's really nifty, being a bigger guy and running out of the `I.' I just think we're very different players, but I think he's one of the best running backs in the country right now.''
James still knows all about Ball from television, and Ball has seen plenty of James' game on late-night highlights as well.
''Obviously, what I see is he's really electrifying, makes a lot of plays on his feet and open space,'' Ball said. ''What Oregon does a great job of is taking advantage of his strengths. What he brings to the table is speed, and I believe what I bring to the table is a bit of power, strength and speed as well.''
It's getting difficult for both schools' publicists to list every superlative collected by James and Ball, who have moved into both schools' lore while helping their teams reach two Rose Bowls apiece.
Statistics jump off every page, but one testament to their consistency stands out: Ball (60) and James (57) have scored more touchdowns in their careers than any other active FBS players. They're also 1-2 in career points per game, with Ball (10.6) again slightly ahead of James (9.5).
After sitting in the middle of the Badgers' depth chart as recently as the middle of last season, Ball rose to the peak of the position this fall, leading the nation with 1,759 yards rushing heading into the Rose Bowl. The bruising runner from Missouri lost weight in the offseason to get faster, and it has shown this season.
The Big Ten's offensive player of the year scored 38 touchdowns - at least two in every game, and just one TD shy of Barry Sanders' FBS record - while earning a seat in New York with the Heisman finalists.
''I'm really impressed with Montee Ball,'' Aliotti said. ''They are the complete team offensively.''
James has racked up three consecutive 1,500-yard seasons, becoming Oregon's career rushing leader. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist last season when he led the nation in yards rushing, and he's averaging an NCAA-best 149.6 yards per game this year - 14.3 more than Ball - despite dislocating his elbow and missing two games with injuries.
''He's as good as anybody in the country,'' Wisconsin defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge said. ''We have the good fortune of having guys like Montee Ball on our roster, so we at least get the opportunity to tackle someone that's in his league. He's fast, he's got great vision, but he's got great patience, which some guys with his kind of speed don't necessarily have.''
While James risked Space Mountain and paid for it with a goofy photo, Ball and quarterback Russell Wilson mostly stuck with the teacups during their trip to Disneyland.
''Montee can't spin like that teacup,'' Wilson said with a grin. ''That's about the only thing he can't do on the football field.''