Freshman adds to strong tradition in Badgers' win
With top rusher John Clay out because of a concussion and Erik Smith sitting at home with a broken hand, the Badgers asked a true freshman to keep their ground game chugging. No problem.
Ball ran 27 times for 115 yards, scored two touchdowns and overpowered an Indiana defender on a decisive 3-yard TD run in the fourth quarter to give Wisconsin a 31-28 victory that moved them up four places in the AP Top 25 poll to No. 20.
"Being a running back, you have to lower your shoulder and just punish him - punish him for trying to tackle me," Ball said.
The Badgers (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) have excelled over the years behind a variety of different running backs. Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, like the 248-pound Clay, used his size to bruise defenses. Smaller backs like P.J. Hill and Anthony Davis were just as effective with their nifty moves.
But the common thread for each was breaking tackles and finishing runs, as Ball repeatedly did against Indiana (4-6, 1-5).
"Montee is the kind of kid that once you give him a little bit of sugar, he's going to keep going and going," coach Bret Bielema said. "I really think the sky is the limit for that young man. For what we do, he fits perfectly into our system."
Bielema was so confident Ball could excel Saturday that he force-fed the ball to the Missouri native rather junior Zach Brown, who had his own concussion a couple of weeks ago. Brown, who rushed for 250 yards against Minnesota in 2007, came into the game with 56 carries for 217 yards and three TDs. Ball had only 21 carries for 63 yards and one TD in eight games. That was fewer yards than Smith, a redshirt freshman.
But when Clay felt groggy at halftime, Bielema immediately went to Ball, who lived up to the Badgers' powerful tradition.
"After every carry, I was just smiling," Ball said. "I was thanking my offensive line for making the holes and, you know, playing Wisconsin football."
The Badgers now have five straight wins in the series, and over the past two years have piled up 735 yards on the ground. A year ago, they ran for 441 yards and had three 100-yard runners.
Indiana has lost three straight and six of seven this year as their bowl hopes continue to fade. The Hoosiers must win next week at No. 19 Penn State, a team they are 0-12 against all-time, and at home against rival Purdue to become bowl-eligible.
"We were close. Again, just a couple of plays if they swing our way, we win the game," quarterback Ben Chappell said. "Wisconsin played well today, and they ran the ball really well."
No matter who had the ball.
Clay carried 15 times for 134 yards with one score, all in the first half, and Ball joined the 100-yard club for the first time by carrying 19 times for 85 yards in the second half.
Numbers were only part of the story for Ball, though.
When Wisconsin needed him most, Ball showed he had the knockout punch of a champion.
With 8:18 to go, and the Hoosiers within 24-21, an Indiana defender met Ball squarely in the hole. Ball didn't flinch, running through the tackle and bowling his way into the end zone for a 31-21 lead.
The next time Wisconsin got the ball, protecting a 31-28 lead with 4:01 left, Ball carried it eight times in nine plays to run out the clock.
What role will Ball play in the future?
Bielema can't say for sure.
Ball said he expects Clay to return next week, though Bielema would not confirm that. Smith is expected to play on special teams next week against Michigan, but is likely out of the running back rotation because of the cast on his hand.
So it appears Ball will get a chance to be the second back in the rotation next week. Or perhaps, if things go the way they did Saturday, to become the Badgers go-to back again.
Either way, Ball plans to be ready.
"Coming into this game, I knew I was going to get a lot more carries than I would in previous weeks," he said. "I just became a man today."