Badgers' Ball back makes his move
With freshman James White sidelined with a MCL sprain in the second quarter, Ball backed up John Clay and was the vital piece in the UW football team's final drive against Iowa.
After grabbing a 7-yard pass from senior quarterback Scott Tolzien on a fourth-and-four play from the Iowa 34-yard line that kept the winning drive alive late in the fourth quarter, the 5-foot-11, 236-pound bruiser closed out the surge with a pair of 8-yard runs, the second ending with a stretch over the goal line that helped make the difference in Wisconsin's 31-30 victory.
"Montee comes running into the huddle, and everyone that has played a lot of games had played games with Montee in the huddle," UW offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. "You can make a lot out of him not getting a lot of reps and not playing, but bottom line in this is what you appreciate most. His time came, and he delivered."
Ball was all smiles standing outside the visitors' locker room at Kinnick Stadium, especially considering the journey he had made.
Named the No.2 back out of fall camp, Ball looked the part in the season opener against UNLV, rushing for 79 yards and registering his second career two-touchdown game, but had been on a slide ever since. Ball didn't play in Wisconsin's 31-18 victory over then-No. 1 Ohio State three weeks ago and had five carries for 16 yards in the two previous Big Ten games.
Now, Ball could see his role increase when No. 7 Wisconsin (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) travels to West Lafayette, Ind., to take on Purdue (4-4, 2-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday. With White still nursing a knee injury, the first-year player is expected to be held out, meaning Ball will back up Clay from the start for the first time since the nonconference schedule.
"I'm not a greedy person, and James has performed as many times as I have," Ball said. "He deserves it. I pray that he comes back strong and healthy, and I know he will. Once he comes back, he's going to do his thing."
Ball admitted he lost some confidence this season after watching White replace him as the complement to Clay. He was so itching to play that he even approached coach Bret Bielema about contributing on special teams, just so he could help the team.
So when running backs coach John Settle congratulated him on keeping his head up, it was extra special.
"I'm fully committed to this team, no matter where I play or where I am on the depth chart," Ball said.
"I'm here to stay and here to keep fighting with the team. We bleed and sweat together, so I'm not going to let them down."
As important as his two running plays were against Iowa, Ball was more important in the passing game. In addition to his key fourth-down catch, he took a shovel pass from Tolzien for a 14-yard gain and a critical first down in Wisconsin's first touchdown drive.
Ball led all Badgers with five catches and was comfortable lining up as a receiver due to the number of repetitions he and White went through at that formation during fall camp.
"That's what you don't take for granted and you appreciate," Chryst said. "He did what he should do, and that's be ready."
There's no doubt that Clay is the workhorse of the running game. He finished with 93 yards on 24 carries and had two touchdowns against Hawkeyes, following his 104-yard effort from a week earlier against Ohio State.
History shows that the Clay-Ball 1-2 punch is successful. Last season, Clay averaged 133.6 yards in his final six games, going over 100 yards in each game. He was running with fresh legs in large part to Ball, who rushed for 328 of his 391 rushing yards in the last five games.
Wisconsin's last game was validation that Ball still is a vital part of the team's success. Saturday will be another chance for him to continue his upswing.
"I went on a roller-coaster ride," Ball said. "My mind has been saying, ‘I can't do this,' and I've been telling myself I can.
"I've been trying to keep my head up and kept fighting the fight because that's what I feel like I can do of that."