LINCOLN — Wisconsin’s Montee Ball clutched the football tight last Saturday after scoring his record 79th career touchdown, making it clear that it was going back to the sideline with him.
The running back had come too far and worked too hard, especially this season, to just flip the football to the nearest official.
“I plan on giving it to my parents,” Ball said this week. “It’s my thank you to them.”
The yards and touchdowns haven’t been as plentiful for Ball as last year, when he rumbled into the Heisman Trophy race and finished fourth in the voting. He started his senior year with a collection of unimpressive performances, limited by some of the Badgers’ offensive line problems.
That’s only made him savor the numbers that he slowly accumulated as Wisconsin worked its way to the Big Ten championship game against Nebraska.
“Oh yeah, yards have been a lot tougher this year,” Ball said. “Just like last year, I appreciate every yard. I make sure I work really hard and don’t let my teammates down. I want to make sure I explode through and get everything I can for my teammates.”
Ball might need to get everything he can Saturday night if the Badgers are going to earn a third straight trip to the Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin (7-5) has increasingly leaned on the 5-foot-11, 215-pounder since going to fifth-year senior Curt Phillips, who has made his first three career starts at quarterback. In those games, Ball rushed for 198 yards against Indiana, 191 against Ohio State (on a career-high 39 attempts) and 111 against Penn State, when his 79th touchdown moved him past former FBS leader Travis Prentice (78 from 1996-99 for Miami, Ohio).
After averaging 94.3 yards and 3.9 per carry in the Badgers’ first six games, Ball improved to 160.7 and 5.7 in the last six.
“He’s gotten better every game, as much as he has in his career,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “He’s obviously the all-time leader in touchdowns in NCAA history … no small task to get that done. He gets frustrated, but that just makes him go harder.”
Ball led the nation in rushing in 2011 with 1,923 yards, and his 39 touchdowns (33 rushing) tied the NCAA single-season record by former Heisman winner Barry Sanders (1988, Oklahoma State).
But Ball was the victim of an off-campus assault days before fall camp. Then the Badgers started the season with offensive line play so shaky that Bielema made a coaching change after two games as the team was still trying to replace quarterback Russell Wilson, who’d moved on to start in the NFL. Before the first game against Nebraska on Sept. 29, Ball already had been held to 61 yards by Oregon State and 45 by Texas-El Paso.
Ball scored three TDs against the Huskers, but netted 90 yards on 32 carries and was stopped on a late fourth-down run in the 30-27 loss in Lincoln — one of four games Wisconsin has lost by three points.
“First off, it’s very frustrating to lose any game,” Ball said. “Every game we lost this year, how close we were, it just makes it that much more frustrating. I guess what this team is going to learn for next year — and what we’re going to learn for this weekend and our bowl game — is that every play matters.”
Every yard the rest of the way will matter to Ball. He needs 162 in the final two games to become the 15th 5,000-yard rusher in NCAA history, joining a club that includes former Badger Ron Dayne, Ricky Williams, Tony Dorsett, Ladainian Tomlinson, Herschel Walker and Archie Griffin.
That milestone, however, takes a back seat. Ball just wants Wisconsin to repeat the Big Ten championship it won last December in Indianapolis, when he ran for 137 yards and three scores in the 42-39 win against Michigan State.
“I remember the environment was something every player dreams of playing in,” Ball said. “The lights, cameras, just the fans screaming … it was something that was very special. The energy we had on our sideline was great, and really hoping the same thing happens this weekend.”
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