CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Senior captain Aaron Henry doesn’t mince his words … ever, always choosing to wear his emotions on his sleeve and give a direct answer to any direct question. Therefore, he’s always the perfect candidate to get the facts from, and he spelled it out for anybody that doesn’t see what he sees every day.
Move over LaMichael James and stand aside Trent Richardson because junior Montee Ball is the best running back playing in college football, period.
“The stats speak for itself,” Henry said. “They said he rushed for 200 yards. It was a quiet 200 but Montee Ball is Montee Ball. Week in and week out, he doesn’t let anybody down.”
Quiet might not accurately describe Ball’s performance for No.15 Wisconsin against Illinois – 38 carries, 224 yards, two running touchdowns and one receiving touchdown in a 28-17 victory over the Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium Saturday – but he certainly delivers when the calendar turns to November.
In the last three weeks, Ball has rushed for 613 yards (204.3 ypg) and seven touchdowns. Consider it a trend, as Ball averaged 161.3 yards per game in four November games last season.
“It was pretty quiet because even in the game I didn’t know how many yards I had and stuff like that,” said Ball, who ho hummed about his seventh 100-plus yard rushing game of the season and 13th of his career. “Just chipping away at the iceberg.”
The chipping was Ball referring to a 17-7 halftime deficit, only the second time Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) has trailed all season at intermission, but also accurately describes his march to rewriting the record books.
Ball scored a touchdown for the 17th-straight game and has scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season. With his three scores against Illinois, Ball becomes just the fifth player in FBS history to score at least 30 touchdowns in a season.
Ball broke the Big Ten record of 26 total touchdowns last week with his four touchdown performance in Minnesota, meaning the only thing he is chasing now is the national record.
With at least two games left, three if the Badgers beat Penn State in the home finale next weekend, Ball needs nine touchdowns to tie Barry Sanders NCAA record of 39 he set in his 1988 Heisman Season at Oklahoma State.
The mark doesn’t include Sanders’ bowl game, a five touchdown performance against Wyoming in the Holiday Bowl, but no Badgers player is splitting hairs, especially after Ball scored two of his three touchdowns in the second half when the offense badly needed to find some momentum.
“Montee really carried the team,” said lineman Travis Frederick. “Montee is a special player. He’s a guy that can turn it on and make things happen when things aren’t happening. To have that on our team is a blessing and something you don’t see every day on every team.”
Ball entered fall camp having slimmed down his bulky 240-pound frame to around 215 pounds, a much publicized decision he made to help him run quicker and cut crisper. Going through the rigors of the season, Ball has leveled out around 204 pounds, and still had his whole array of moves.
With Wisconsin trailing on its first drive of the second half, Ball showed his power, twice having his number called on fourth-and-1 and twice moving the chains by lowering his shoulder and grinding out the yards. It’s exactly what he did in the first half when he scored his ninth 1-yard touchdown in 2011.
“He’s a workhorse,” said senior quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw his fifth touchdown pass to Ball to reward the tailback for his two fourth-down conversions. “His ability to make people miss, get first downs and obviously score when we get to the red zone and the 1- and 2-yard line is huge.”
But the weight loss showed on Ball’s 17-yard fourth-quarter score, getting to the second level of the defense and unleashing a slick spin move on junior cornerback on Terry Hawthorne. Hawthorne grabbed nothing but air and Ball could be seen unleashing a wry smile on his way into the end zone.
“He’s been able to get the job done,” senior guard Kevin Zeitler said. “He’s been reliable, he’s been productive, so why not rely on him?”
With his freshly trimmed body, Ball was in a position battle with James White when the season opened, as both running backs were expected to receive around 14 carries to balance out the work load. Ball got 10 carries against UNLV in the opener, turned them into three touchdowns, kept the starting job and never gave it up.
“I was really confident in myself after the first game,” Ball said. “I just wanted to keep it like that and keep the ball in my hands.”
In two years, Ball hasn’t lost a fumble, a proud fact he contributes to his work ethic. Pushing himself harder and running faster in practice, it’s a style of work that prompted players and coach Bret Bielema to say that not only does Ball love every minute of the preparation, no other running back competes in practice harder than him. It’s a reason that the games not only slow down for him but have become easy for him, and it shows.
“He’s a tremendous worker and you can see that with the weight he lost,” sophomore linebacker Chris Borland said. “We see that every day. He’s precise in the way he runs his routes, way he picks up blocks and the way he runs. I am glad he’s on our team.”
One look at the Heisman balloting verifies that Ball does everything quietly. In part because of Wisconsin having a pair of heartbreaking losses and sharing the offensive spotlight with Wilson, the highly-hyped quarterback who has his own Twitter campaign run for him by the UW Athletic Department, Ball’s name isn’t discussed nationally.
Perhaps another performance like Saturday’s game would start generating some noise with his name in the Doak Walker Award conversation. It would be the first time anybody outside of the Big Ten has said a peep about him all season long, which is just the way he likes to operate.
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