MADISON, Wis. — Montee Ball gripped history on his fingertips less than an hour after Wisconsin’s 21-14 overtime loss against Ohio State on Saturday evening. Standing in the bowels of Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers’ senior running back tightly held the football he had carried while tying the all-time NCAA FBS career touchdown record earlier in the day.
Despite the magnitude of his accomplishment, he couldn’t help lamenting that he wasn’t holding a second football — because history had literally slipped from those very same fingertips.
Saturday, no doubt, will be remembered by some for Ball’s 78th career touchdown on a 7-yard run up the middle during the second quarter, a scintillating dash that included vaulting an Ohio State defender at the 2-yard line. The score moved him into a tie for first place on the career touchdown list with Miami (Ohio) running back Travis Prentice, who established the mark in 1999.
But Ball’s day also may be remembered for the touchdown that was not, a goal-line fumble on a leap for the end zone with less than three minutes remaining in the game. As a result, an opportunity to break the record in his final home game fell by the wayside.
“Stupid decision,” Ball said. “The same thing happened to me last week against Indiana. I reached the ball out and luckily it crossed the goal line before it came out. I just felt like I had to do something in that situation.”
Wisconsin trailed 14-7 and faced a fourth-and-inches from the 1-yard-line. Given how close Ball was to the end zone — and how good he has been at securing the football — there was little doubt who would take the handoff. When Ball stretched for the front of the end zone, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier knocked the ball away at the last instant.
It was just Ball’s second career lost fumble in 852 rushing attempts.
“We talk about running the ball in the end zone,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. “I just had this flash in my mind when we were lining up to run that play. I’m like, ‘Don’t jump. Don’t jump.’ Because I knew he was doing anything he could to get in the end zone. I can’t discredit him for the effort.”
Ohio State recovered the ball at the 6-yard-line with 2:46 left in the fourth quarter. The fumble didn’t ultimately cost Wisconsin the game — the Badgers tied the score with eight seconds remaining to send it to overtime — but it stung Ball nonetheless.
Even in defeat, players praised Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist last year, for tying a mark that signifies excellence.
“I think Montee played tremendous today,” Badgers center Travis Frederick said. “He was running as hard as I’ve ever seen him run today. I think he was doing that for several reasons. Hopefully, he can continue to run that well.”
Ball surpassed some other notable records on his touchdown run as well. He broke Prentice’s NCAA record for career points (468) with 470. He also surpassed 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, a former Wisconsin great, for the Big Ten rushing touchdowns record with 72.
“What he’s done in the career that he’s had, it wasn’t like he was a four-year No. 1 starting tailback,” Bielema said of Ball. “He’s had to share the load with a lot of people, so it’s truly an amazing performance.”
Ball said he managed to take the time after his touchdown run to step back and briefly bask in his accomplishment on a play that was set up perfectly.
“Up until that point, I just told myself I’m not going to be stopped,” he said. “It’s memorable. It’s something I’m going to look back on and I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life.”
For the game, Ball carried a career-high 39 times and finished with 191 yards rushing and one touchdown. He has 1,417 rushing yards this season and 17 touchdowns despite enduring a well-documented slow start that included sustaining a concussion from an assault before fall camp began. Through four games, he had amassed 360 yards rushing and just three touchdowns. But he returned to his Heisman finalist form — when he scored 39 total touchdowns — during Big Ten play this season.
Ball has three more games remaining in his college career — the regular-season finale at Penn State, the Big Ten championship game and a bowl game to be determined. In other words, all is not lost in his quest to set the all-time touchdown record.
What does Ball intend to do with his record-tying touchdown ball? The same thing he plans to do with the next one — and he’s convinced there will be a next one.
“I’m just going to give it to my parents,” Ball said. “Hopefully, I score one next week and give it to my parents as well.”