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December 3, 2011

A historical season unnoticed





The ballad of Montee Ball is just now reaching it's fever pitch.

It took a 12-game preamble, but people, and more importantly people that make decisions, are starting to take notice. It only took 34 touchdowns and over 1,600 yards rushing to get there, but Ball has finally arrived on the national scene.

"You've got to embrace it," Ball told a small gathering of reporters following a practice earlier this week. "It's something you can never take for granted."

Funny he should say that because his entire season, at least in regards to national media hype, has been taken for granted.

Not only has Ball rushed for more yards than Trent Richardson, widely considered to be a Heisman trophy finalist, but he has 14 more touchdowns and a better yards-per-carry mark.

Richardson gets plenty of national attention and it's well deserved. Ball hasn't gotten hardly any. And it's a shame.

Considering Ball hasn't logged a carry during the fourth quarter in six of UW's 12 games, take's his historic season to an even higher level.

A tough road:

When things weren't going well for Montee Ball during the first half of UW's 2010 season, a year when John Clay and true freshman James White had a stranglehold on the position, he never thought about transferring. That wouldn't be very Ball-like.

"But I did consider moving back to linebacker," Ball said. "I talked to my parents about that stuff. They did a great job of telling me to stick with it and keep fighting."

Ball never did approach any of the UW coaches, namely Bret Bielema, about his position change idea. He relied on the voice of reason provided by his parents. It was there he realized he has an opportunity at Wisconsin to do great things.

"I don't know what (Bielema) would say," Ball said when asked how his head coach would have reacted had he proposed a move to linebacker. "I honestly have no answer for that, but I'm sure he would have the same answer."

Obviously Ball stayed put at running back. And obviously he got his chance to shine. When that opportunity presented itself he ran with it, both literally and figuratively.

Since getting ample playing time against Iowa and throughout the remainder of that 2010 season and through 12 games this year, Ball has scored at least two touchdowns every time he sees the field.

That 17-game streak is a national record.

He's already the Big Ten's all-time record holder with 34 touchdowns in a single season (and counting). He's also the Big Ten's all-time record holder with 29 (and counting) rushing touchdowns.

Only one player in the history of college football (Barry Sanders) has scored more touchdowns (39) in a single season. Ball is within striking distance of that record with two games left this season.

"You never know how important something is until it's taken from you," Ball said in reference to his slow start as a sophomore. "I read what coach said in the media one day. He said that was the first time Montee had ever had the football taken away from him. It's true.

"Seeing it from the other side really stung. I'm glad it happened."

A Heisman finalist?

Though it's not for Ball, Bielema or anybody else involved or dedicated to the program to decide, it seems as though UW's stud tailback is currently on the outside looking in as far as Heisman finalists are concerned.

Guys such as Richardson, Andrew Luck, Case Keenum and Robert Griffin III seem to be in better position. All worthy candidates to be certain, but it's apparent Ball is too.

He's the nation's second leading rusher, he's hands down the nation's preeminent touchdown scorer, he's the Big Ten's offensive player of the year and only unanimous first-team All-Conference selection.

Bret Bielema, a member of the voting panel for All-American distinction, hinted that he voted Ball as a member of his first-team selection.

There's so much that could be said about Ball's historic run, his historic rise to national prevalence and his effect on the Badger squad.

When he left UW's loss to Michigan State the Badger offense sputtered. It was during that time when the Spartans exacted a 14-0 deficit by rattling off a 31-3 run that put UW behind 31-17 midway through the fourth quarter.

There's no coincidence there.

Ball is that important to his team's offensive success, so much so that his quarterback Russell Wilson has said on numerous occasions that he'd vote Ball for Heisman if he had any say in it.

There's got to be something said about a historic run that isn't getting the type of historical precedence it deserves.

But the UW program isn't built on chest-pounders and 'me' guys. There won't be any countdown or any unusual gameplan tendencies built to specifically break Sanders' record.

"We've talked about it," Bielema said. "You're not going to ignore the elephant in the room. As time goes on we're not going to set up a score on the 1-yard line to let him get it.

"We're going to get things as they naturally come during the course of the game."

The future:

Immediately, Ball remains focused on tonight's Big Ten championship game against Michigan State.

"We're not approaching it like we're trying to get revenge," Ball said. "Obviously there's a lot more fire under us to not let those little mistakes come up in practice because we did lose to them.

"We've got to make sure we get after them this time."

Ball was incredibly hard on himself following UW's loss to Michigan State the first time around. Having had to miss most of the second quarter after taking a shot to his head, Ball made it clear things would have been different had that not happened.

"I kind of blamed it on myself for taking myself out," Ball said. "We're going to do a great job this time. The offense is going to keep the high tempo going."

When Ball pulled himself out of that game he didn't really have any other choice. He appeared to stand up only to lose his balance and fall down again. Usually when that happens players wouldn't return to the game at all. It usually signifies a concussion, or at least concussion-like symptoms.

"Probably," Ball said when asked if taking himself out of that game was the only choice. "Because I made such a big scene about it."

Wisconsin, and Ball, gets another crack at the team that has beat it three of the past four times it has played. It's the penultimate game of the 2011 season and potentially the penultimate game for Ball as a Badger.

He has already said he'll talk to the necessary people after the season - - NFL advisory board, UW coaches, his parents - - about his NFL prospects and draft likelihood. He didn't commit to returning for his senior year, but he also didn't commit to leaving.

He's too busy focusing on the task at hand. And that will likely add to his legend, his ballad, before it's all said and done.

"What Montee has done against good defenses is really incredible," Bielema said. "Especially with a lack of touches in the fourth quarter. I just keep trying to tell him how much better he'll be next year if he comes back.

"So that is a point of emphasis for all of us."







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