Unlike last year, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball isn’t among the season-ending Heisman Trophy finalists. But he has now earned a significant piece of hardware that eluded him even during last season’s record-breaking campaign.
On Thursday night, Ball won the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding running back. He also was named to the Walter Camp All-America team for the second consecutive season.
Ball finished ahead of fellow Doak Walker finalists Kenjon Barner of Oregon and Johnathan Franklin of UCLA for the award, which has been presented to the nation’s most outstanding running back each year since 1989. He has rushed for 1,730 yards with 21 touchdowns and becomes Wisconsin’s second Doak Walker Award winner, joining Ron Dayne, who claimed the award in 1999.
Last season, Ball rushed for 1,923 yards and scored 39 touchdowns to tie Barry Sanders’ single-season FBS record. He was a Doak Walker Award finalist but lost out on the top honor to then-Alabama running back Trent Richardson.
Ball opted to return for his senior year rather than enter the NFL draft, but his season started poorly after he was assaulted in August just days before fall practices began. He was forced to miss time with a concussion and struggled to find his best form during nonconference play. It didn’t help that Wisconsin’s typically-dominant offensive line couldn’t create holes for its star running back, and that likely cost Ball an opportunity at being a Heisman Trophy finalist again.
As a result of the team’s poor play, offensive line coach Mike Markuson was fired after two games, and graduate assistant Bart Miller was brought in to re-tool the line.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who will coach the team in the Rose Bowl, said Thursday he admired Ball’s perseverance.
“I could see how frustrated you could get early in the year when you get the ball, you’ve got the best back in America, and it’s third-and-one, and you’re holding your breath, or you run a power play, and there’s no place to go,” Alvarez said. “I could see how he got frustrated. But never once did I see him say anything negative, had negative body language. He just kept plugging along and ended up having the year we all expected.
“That all went along with the offensive line getting better. I’m very proud of how he’s handled himself and how he never got frustrated and continued to work. I’m pleased that he’s being honored and other people recognize it.”
Through four games, Ball had rushed for 360 yards and three touchdowns. Then, Big Ten play began and he returned to his standout self. Over the Badgers’ final nine games, he rushed for 1,370 yards (152.2 per game) and scored 18 touchdowns. He helped Wisconsin reach its third consecutive Rose Bowl by rushing for 202 yards with three touchdowns during Wisconsin’s 70-31 drubbing of Nebraska in the Big Ten championship.
“I had to face some adversity off the field and obviously the team did as well,” Ball said Thursday night during the Home Depot College Football Awards Show at Walt Disney World. “But I believe we made a statement our last game and as of right now I’m just honored just to share this entire experience with my family and, most important, the other two great running backs that are here today.”
Ball is the sixth Big Ten player to earn the Doak Walker Award and the first since Iowa’s Shonn Greene in 2008. He will be honored at the 2012 Doak Walker Award Banquet on Feb. 15 in Dallas.
Wisconsin has boasted a Doak Walker finalist each of the last three seasons, with John Clay earning a finalist nod in 2010 before Ball’s back-to-back nominations. UW has had eight Doak Walker semifinalists over the past 15 seasons.
Ball is the NCAA’s all-time leader in touchdowns with 82. He surpassed Miami (Ohio) running back Travis Prentice’s previous best of 78 with a touchdown against Penn State in the regular-season finale. Ball also holds the NCAA career record for rushing touchdowns with 76. He ranks in a tie for fourth all-time among Big Ten players with 5,040 career rushing yards and became the 17th player in FBS history to surpass 5,000 yards.
This season, Ball’s 1,730 rushing yards rank third nationally. And he has an opportunity to add to all his totals on Jan. 1, when Wisconsin (8-5) plays No. 6 Stanford (11-2) in Pasadena, Calif.
He’ll do so with a new coach for the first time in his college career. Bret Bielema left this week after seven seasons in charge at Wisconsin to take the same position at Arkansas. Alvarez will now coach Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl at the request of the team’s captains, who wanted him to lead them in biggest game of the year.
Alvarez is a Hall of Famer who hasn’t been on the sidelines for seven years but is also 3-0 coaching in Rose Bowls at Wisconsin.
“It’s going to be great,” Ball said. “My last game ever. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he’s capable of bringing to the table, which we all know. But I’m really excited for him to join us, and we’re all just looking forward to playing another game in front of our fans.”