MADISON - The record books are having a “Ball.”
How fitting that junior running back Montee Ball was the inaugural winner of Big Ten’s Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year award, named after former Badgers Alan Ameche and Ron Dayne who won the Heisman Trophy in 1954 and 1999, respectively, when he has put up the kind of numbers that would make his predecessors proud.
Ameche broke the NCAA record for touchdowns in 1954 with 25, and Dayne broke the record for rushing in 1999 with 1,834 yards and currently holds the most career yards for Division I.
Ball has following a similar path in 2011. He’s broken the Big Ten record with 34 touchdowns, he is the fifth player in NCAA history to score 30 touchdowns in a season and only trails Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders’ 39 touchdowns in 1988.
Ball’s dedication and hard work – losing upwards of 30 pounds in the offseason to make himself quicker and stronger - has paid off and the record books prove it.
“I think he is dedicated; he’s a team guy,” said running back coach, Thomas Hammock. “He will do whatever it takes to be successful.”
Fresh off his back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the week honors, earned from his career-high 224 yards against Illinois and his 156-yard, four-touchdown performance against Penn State, Ball and No.15 Wisconsin are ready for another crack at No.11 Michigan State when the two schools meet Saturday in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.
For Ball, it marks an opportunity to redeem one of his more frustrating performances of the season.
In UW’s 37-31 loss at East Lansing Oct.22, Ball was a big piece in helping UW score 14 first-quarter points, rushing for 60 yards and one touchdown. But when he suffered a head injury early in the second quarter and pulled himself out of the game temporarily, the momentum halted in a 23-0 Spartans’ second quarter that UW never fully recovered from.
“After the game I kind of blamed it on myself for taking myself out,” Ball said. “You never know how important something is until it’s taken from you. Coach said the other day, ‘that’s the first time Montee has ever had football taken from him.’ And its true, so seeing it from the other side really hits you hard.”
Michigan State has the top-ranked defense in the conference, while Wisconsin has the top-ranked offense. When that’s the case, according to Ball, the small mistakes matter, mistakes that added up against Wisconsin in the team’s first meeting.
“If we take two or three plays away from that game we (probably) would have won, so now at practice the little mistakes aren’t going to go by,” Ball said. “The offense kind of stalled a little bit. That’s what we are really focusing on this week to stay fast and keep it going.”
Playing a team that UW has already been played this season has its advantages. For Ball and his teammates, the film room has put things in perspective.
“We did it to ourselves,” Ball said of UW’s first loss of the season. “We had mistakes in that game. We were doing things that we usually don’t do. Watching film after that game we noticed that we weren’t playing how we normally play. Some of the runs I had, I could have done better. That’s one of the advantages of playing this team again, watching the film it’s probably going to be the same plays. We are going to make sure we do it right this time.”
The approach isn’t any different for the Badgers this week at practice than any other week, a message Hammock delivered to the running backs in the group’s first position meeting following the Penn State victory: same approach, same tempo and more improvement.
“(We need) to improve on our reads, to improve on pass protection and to do the little things that are going to help us be successful on Saturday.” Hammock said. “You have to put four quarters together and be able to finish the game off. We jumped up 14-0 and (Michigan State) did a good job of coming back. We have to play four quarters the way we know how to. We have to play hard, play together, give it everything we have.”
If it’s a question of will, it’s going to take more than a bump to the head to keep Ball off Lucas Oil Field.
“This is a good opportunity for us to get back at Michigan State,” Ball said. “They deserved to win at first but now we are going to capitalize on this opportunity.”