RB Ball in good spirits after head injury
MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin running back Montee Ball jogged off the field decked in a gray Badgers sweatsuit following Saturday afternoon's game, jumping and smiling with his left arm playfully around the neck of teammate Melvin Gordon. After missing nearly three quarters of action, Ball certainly looked as though he felt all right.
That should come as good news for Badgers fans because Ball absorbed a hard hit to the head on a 1-yard touchdown run with 14 minutes, 13 seconds remaining in the second quarter of Wisconsin's 37-26 victory against UTEP. Ball left the game and remained on the sideline the rest of the way after the training staff took his helmet and placed it in a case near the team bench.
Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema said the extent of Ball's head injury was not known after the game, and Ball was not made available to the media for comment.
Ball did, however, offer an uplifting message on his Twitter account, which also praised the performance of Gordon and James White at running back.
"Just fine!" Ball tweeted after the game. "I really am, great win boys..Great job James n Melvin steppn in! headin in the right direction!"
Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist last year, finished the day with nine carries for 40 yards and one touchdown. The score put Wisconsin ahead, 9-6, and the Badgers did not trail for the remainder of the game.
"I heard he got hit pretty hard," Badgers center Travis Frederick said. "He said it was kind of precautionary or whatever. He just continued to keep cheering us along and keep leading the team the way that he does, and I really appreciate that."
For the most part, it hasn't been the start to the season Ball envisioned when he announced in January his decision to bypass the NFL Draft and return for his senior year.
Ball sustained a concussion the morning of Aug. 1 when he was assaulted while walking back to his apartment after a night out with friends. He missed the first week of fall practice, wore a green non-contact jersey for the remainder of camp and freely admitted to having some rust in his first game of the season against Northern Iowa.
This season, Ball's Heisman Trophy stock has plummeted. In four games, he has rushed 93 times for 360 yards and three touchdowns — an average of just 3.9 yards per carry.
Last season, he ran for 1,923 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. He tied Barry Sanders' single-season FBS record with 39 total touchdowns — more touchdowns than 42 FBS teams in 2011.
During the first quarter on Saturday, Ball lost a fumble for the first time in 711 career touches. He was promptly benched on the next offensive series before returning to score a touchdown.
"We hope he's not hurt," UTEP coach Mike Price said. "He's a true All-American. We knocked him around pretty good."
In Ball's absence, Gordon carried eight times for a career-high 112 yards and a touchdown. White added 15 carries for 65 yards and two touchdowns. And Ball was there to congratulate them both on the sideline, as Wisconsin improved to 3-1.
"I just grabbed him at half," Bielema said of Ball. "He said he kind of got dinged up a little bit. I don't know if it was a full concussion or whatever it's at. I'll let the doctors decide that. Montee because just the kind of person he is, he knows he gets a lot of attention. All those guys knew when (Gordon) gets a hold of that football, some good things are going to happen. It was fun to see him finally get rewarded today because he is a guy that I think is going to be a special football player."
There was some good news to emerge for Ball from Saturday's game.
Ball's touchdown was the 64th of his career, moving him into eighth place in NCAA history, surpassing Tim Tebow (Florida) and Marshall Faulk (San Diego State). It was his 58th career rushing touchdown, which is tied for eighth in NCAA history.
Ball is the NCAA's active leader in touchdowns (64), rushing touchdowns (58), rushing yards (3,670) and points (386). He needs 15 touchdowns to break the NCAA career record for total touchdowns.
It's too early to determine whether Ball will continue his march up the record books next week, or if he'll instead be forced to miss Wisconsin's Big Ten opener against Nebraska. But White remains optimistic about Ball's condition.
"I know he's going to bounce back," White said. "I said ‘Just stay locked into the game and get your mind right after this game and get ready for next week.' It doesn't seem like he's doing too bad, so I think he'll be fine. He's ready to get back out there with us."
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