MADISON - On a New Year's Day when he could've been celebrating his individual performance in the Rose Bowl, Montee Ball instead wondered what he'd done wrong.
Forget the late-game touchdown. Forget the 132 yards rushing. Why, Ball thought, hadn't he been able to evade more tacklers during Wisconsin's 21-19 loss against TCU that day? Why did he feel so slow?
"I felt like if those tackles didn't happen, it would have made a huge difference in the game," Ball said. "It really motivated me in the offseason to lose this weight, and I didn't wait until the last minute to lose it."
Ball immediately set about transforming his body in the winter before the start of his junior season this year. He changed his diet and began running religiously, including a four-mile round-trip from his apartment to the football complex and back. The Badgers' 5-foot-11 running back dropped more than 20 pounds, slimming down from 231 to 210 pounds by the time fall camp commenced.
Now, the only ones feeling slow on the football field are opponents struggling to bring Ball down.
Through five games, Ball has 511 yards rushing -- 102.2 per game -- and 13 touchdowns on the ground for fourth-ranked Wisconsin, which plays host to Indiana at 11 a.m. Saturday. That touchdown figure ranks second in the country among running backs.
"I notice a big difference," Ball said. "I'm able to shed a lot more tackles. I'm not as top-heavy as I was last year. I'm able to take more carries. I'm more conditioned, and my cuts are a lot better."
Ball led the Badgers with 18 rushing touchdowns a year ago, so his performance thus far does not come entirely as a surprise. Still, the sheer volume with which Ball is scoring this season is staggering.
Barry Sanders holds the Football Bowl Subdivision record for rushing touchdowns in a single season with 37, set during the 1988 season in 11 games at Oklahoma State. At Ball's current pace, he would score 36 touchdowns if Wisconsin plays a 14-game season, including the Big Ten championship and a bowl game.
To further put into perspective just how spectacular Ball's scoring binge has been through five games this season, consider that 94 of the other 119 FBS teams (79 percent) have scored fewer than 13 rushing touchdowns thus far.
"It's crazy," Badgers running back James White said. "But last year, too, at the end of the season he was racking up touchdowns like crazy. I knew he could do it. He's gone out there trying to make a statement each and every week. He's going out there and doing it."
Dating back to last season, Ball has scored at least one touchdown in 11 consecutive games. He also has 29 total touchdowns since last Oct. 23.
How, specifically, has Ball done it this season?
A closer examination of his touchdown runs reveal that 10 of Ball's 13 scores have come from inside the five-yard line. Six have occurred from the one-yard line.
"He's had a bunch that are close to the goal line," Badgers running backs coach Thomas Hammock said. "I remember (wide receiver) Bradie (Ewing) catching a long route and getting caught at the one and the tight end doing the same thing. I can remember a couple pretty easy ones where you should get in.
"The way we block up front, and the holes that they create, gives him an opportunity to be successful down there."
While Ball has been a beneficiary of circumstance at times, his offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is quick to point out that finishing those runs is no effortless task. Plus, Ball now has the speed to break away from defenders, as he did on a 22-yard touchdown run against UNLV earlier this season.
"I think he's certainly done it a little bit of both ways," Chryst said. "Just because we're close, he had one run against Nebraska, we're inside the five, but it was a heck of a run. Just because you're in tight doesn't mean it's an easy one. I love and appreciate the way he's gone about work this fall. We'll need him to keep doing that."
Ball is averaging 18.6 carries per game for the undefeated Badgers (5-0). That number is up from a year ago, when he carried 13.6 times per contest.
Ball's skill set of speed and power, coupled with an ability to carry a heavy load, now has him on the precipice of the NFL. It's why Wisconsin football coach Bret Bielema chose to meet with Ball and his parents during a bye week last week to discuss professional opportunities following the season.
"You could tell he appreciated where I was coming from," Bielema said. "It was more for his mom and dad. I brought them in and talked to them. Montee is just like, ‘Coach I just want to get to this next game.'"
While the NFL now appears to be a realistic possibility, Ball says his focus remains in the moment -- mostly.
Every now and then, his physical transformation from months ago still pops up as the topic of conversation among players.
"We laugh all the time," White said. "We look at some old pictures. I have a picture on my iPad. We were looking at it in the hotel one day. I went back to it. He looked so chubby. Even in his cheeks. You can tell the difference. It's going good for him so far."
And even better for the Badgers.
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