Badgers TD machine Ball thrilled by Heisman stage

Although he’s preparing a speech just in case, Montee Ball

swears it’s OK if he doesn’t win the Heisman Trophy.

Considering where he was in the middle of last season, buried on

Wisconsin’s depth chart and pondering his future in football, going

to New York as a finalist for the award is enough for him.

”It’s an honor just to make it there,” Ball told reporters in

Madison earlier this week. ”That’s enough for me, right there –

just making it, just sitting next to all the other great players in

the country.”

After scoring a jaw-dropping 38 touchdowns and helping the

Badgers to the Rose Bowl, Ball joins Alabama running back Trent

Richardson, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, Stanford

quarterback Andrew Luck and LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu as

finalists attending Saturday’s ceremony.

For Ball, it’s the high point in a remarkable one-year

turnaround.

Ball became an afterthought as a sophomore midway through last

season, falling behind John Clay and freshman James White in the

Badgers’ running back rotation. The low point came in Wisconsin’s

biggest game of the 2010 season, a victory over Ohio State.

Ball didn’t play.

”At that time, I would never have thought that I’d make it this

far,” Ball said. ”But I’m glad to see myself stick through it,

really fight through that situation and stay the course.”

Ball’s father, Montee Sr., told the Wisconsin State Journal

earlier this season that Ball considered transferring after that

game – or even moving to linebacker. Instead, with encouragement

from his family, Ball recommitted himself.

Ball scored the game-winning touchdown in a wild comeback

victory at Iowa the following week, and took off from there. He

carried the ball 20-plus times and gained 120-plus yards in each of

the Badgers’ last five games last season, scoring 14 touchdowns

during that stretch.

But his real transformation came in the offseason, when Ball

shed weight and got faster. The result was a runner who could dart

past people instead of just running them over, and it’s

showing.

Ball’s 38 total touchdowns are one shy of the NCAA record of 39

set by Barry Sanders for Oklahoma State in 1988. Ball has scored

multiple touchdowns in each game this season and was named the Big

Ten’s offensive player of the year.

Still, he was nervous going into Monday night’s announcement,

unsure that he would be named a finalist.

”You have your doubts,” Ball said. ”I’ll honestly tell you

what I was thinking, I was like, `I have to make it, I have to make

it. I had a great season.’ But then I also had my doubts, saying

maybe I didn’t do good enough. But thank God I made it.”

The Badgers have had a pair of Heisman winners: fullback Alan

Ameche in 1954 and running back Ron Dayne in 1999. Ball doesn’t

remember watching Dayne that year, but he and Dayne do text each

other occasionally.

”He just said, stay the course, keep playing hard because

that’s the only thing you can control,” Ball said. ”And it’ll all

just unfold itself at the end.”

Ball’s late-season bid for Heisman consideration was something

of a curveball for Wisconsin’s athletic department, after throwing

their early support behind a campaign for quarterback Russell

Wilson.

As the season progressed, Badgers coach Bret Bielema played it

down the middle, saying both players deserved consideration. Wilson

said he would cast a ballot for Ball if he had a vote.

And Wilson was among the first to congratulate Ball after he was

announced as a Heisman finalist.

”I talked to him right after they announced it, and he just

told me, `Well deserved,”’ Ball said. ”I also made sure I told

him that what you’ve done for this team has allowed me to make it

to New York, too.”

Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who will face Wisconsin in the Rose

Bowl, said the combination of Ball and Wilson is arguably the best

quarterback/running back combination in college football.

”If you want to gang up and stop their running game with Montee

Ball, then they’re putting the ball in Russell’s hands and throwing

to (Nick) Toon and those other guys,” Kelly said. ”Usually when

you’re playing a team, you’re hoping that they’re one-dimensional.

It makes it easy for you. You have to defend the pass and defend

the run. But a team that’s multidimensional like Wisconsin really

presents the ultimate problem.”

Ball hopes his success will boost the Badgers’ national profile

and encourage other players who run into roadblocks.

”We always really take pride in making a lot of noise for our

program, and this right now is something I really look forward

to,” Ball said. ”Hopefully other players will look at my story

and just stay with the course, keep fighting.”

Connect with AP Sports Writer Chris Jenkins at www.

Twitter.com/ByChrisJenkins

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