PASADENA, Calif. — The merits of Montee Ball’s record-tying touchdown season can be debated for years to come. But by NCAA rules, Ball is now on an even plane in the college game with Barry Sanders, one of the greatest running backs in football’s illustrious history.
Ball scored a touchdown during Wisconsin’s 45-38 Rose Bowl loss against Oregon to match Sanders’ all-time single-season FBS mark of 39. The Badgers’ junior sensation did so in a way that epitomized his season — with a bruising three-yard run up the middle of the Ducks’ defense with 10:52 remaining in the second quarter.
“It’s been an honor, since Day One, being mentioned with him,” Ball said of tying Sanders’ 23-year-old record. “But as the game was going on, I was concentrating on getting the victory.”
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The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist, finished Monday’s game with 32 rushes for 164 yards and a touchdown. He also caught four passes for 51 yards. For the season, he rushed for 1,923 yards with 33 scores on the ground. He tallied six receiving touchdowns.
“The reason Montee got that record was he prepares and puts himself in a frame of mind going into every game this year as good as anybody I’ve ever been around,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. “He’s truly blessed with a lot of athleticism, but he got that record because of the way he works.”
Some might point out that Ball needed 14 games to reach 39 touchdowns — three more than Sanders. Sanders scored his 39 touchdowns in 11 games at Oklahoma State in 1988. And he added five touchdowns that season in the Holiday Bowl, but the NCAA does not include that game in his season statistics. Prior to 2002, bowl game statistics were not included in a player’s single-season totals.
Sanders, for his part, seemed more than willing to embrace Ball as part of the club when Ball’s score put Wisconsin ahead 21-14 in the first half against Oregon.
On Monday, Sanders tweeted, “Congrats @M_Ball28 — I love that it was a go-ahead TD,” after an earlier tweet saying that he hoped Ball would break the record on a game-winning touchdown.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to come from Monday’s game was that Ball didn’t actually break the record. He became the first player in FBS history to score at least two touchdowns in each of the first 13 games of the season. But Monday was the only game in which Ball did not tally multiple scores this season.
That fact did little to quell praise for Ball’s spectacular season.
“The things that Montee has done for us have been incredible,” Badgers offensive lineman Travis Frederick said. “Just having a guy back there that you can trust is going to hit the hole, he’s going to go north and south, he’s going to run to the right track, maybe he’ll pull the linebacker over just two feet that you need him to step over.
“That helps us on the offensive line. There have been a lot of things that he’s made up for that we screwed up. It’s really nice to have a guy back there like that.”
Ball said he will decide on his NFL future in the next few days, though it seems highly unlikely he will return. Wisconsin will be without star quarterback Russell Wilson, who has used up his eligibility, as well as offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. Chryst recently accepted the head coaching position at the University of Pittsburgh.
The decision for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft is Jan. 15.
“I had a great season,” Ball said. “I’ll look back on this season, and if I decide to come back I’ll make sure to carry this season forward.”