MADISON, Wis. It turns out, the swagger and the smile can fade even for a Hesiman Trophy candidate whose confidence is usually infectious among teammates. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball has come to understand this lesson all too well over the past seven weeks.
Ball, the only returning Heisman finalist from a year ago, was the toast of the college football world this summer. But soon after the season began, it was his Heisman campaign that was toast.
During a stunning 10-7 loss against Oregon State on Sept. 8, Ball gained just 61 yards and didn't score a touchdown for the first time in 22 games. On Tuesday, he openly admitted the outcome affected his confidence.
"After that game, I didn't feel good about where I was at, honestly," Ball said. "I wasn't making defenders miss, I wasn't getting any YAC (yards after contact). So I was kind of pointing the finger at myself and got down on myself for a little bit."
Ball, of course, wasn't alone in searching for answers. The offensive line looked so weak against Oregon State that it couldn't push a baby stroller. The next day, offensive line coach Mike Markuson was fired. And the Badgers endured what some might consider the first mini crisis in quite some time at a program that has sustained such a level of excellence.
But even with a new offensive line coach in place, the results were slow to come.
When Ball suffered a head injury and left a Sept. 22 game against UTEP in the second quarter, he was averaging just 90.0 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry. A year ago, he averaged 137.3 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry.
"He's a guy that just had tremendous faith and just continued to work," Badgers center Travis Frederick said. "I think there were a lot of us on the team that really were frustrated with what was going on and just really trying as hard as we could to figure out how to fix that. He was one of those guys that was constantly working."
Now, seven weeks into the season, all the work put forth by Ball and the offensive line is coming into focus. Last week, Ball rushed for a career-high 247 yards including 194 yards gained after contact and scored three touchdowns against Purdue.
In fact, over the first three Big Ten games, Ball has 456 yards rushing and eight touchdowns.
So for those who wrote Ball off last month, perhaps it's time to reconsider. Ball is back as is his confidence and the feeling could not be more gratifying.
"Oh yeah, I'm only human," Ball said. "I most definitely stay away from reading up about myself. But I feel great. It felt great to finally get back and play with my team and do the right things on the field that gets us victories."
If recent history is any indication, he's just getting warmed up. Last season, Ball's name didn't pop up on the lips of Heisman Trophy voters until the second half of the season, when he took over games with astounding statistical success. Ball rushed for 1,155 yards over the final seven games alone.
If Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1 in Big Ten play) reaches the conference championship and a bowl game, as most believe will happen, the team again would have seven games remaining this season.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ball's senior season is that he's actually ahead of his pace yardage-wise from a year ago.
Through seven games last season, Ball carried 125 times for 768 yards 6.1 yards per carry with 17 touchdowns.
Through seven games this season, he has rushed 172 times for 816 yards 4.7 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns.
"It's a great feeling right now," Ball said. "But I try to make sure I keep playing hard and stay on this track that I'm on right now or it'll all go away just as fast as it did two, three, four weeks ago."
Badgers running backs coach Thomas Hammock said he constantly reminds Ball how much better he performed over the second half of last season. It wasn't until a four-touchdown, 151-yard game in primetime against Nebraska in Week 5 last season that most people had really even taken note of Ball.
"I told him, those first five games last year I wasn't overly excited about," Hammock said. "Up until the second half of Nebraska, that's when I started seeing the rhythm, and if you look at the time of the schedule (this year), it's about the same."
Ball attributed some of his slow start to not participating fully in fall practice. He was assaulted near campus in the early morning hours of Aug. 1 while walking back to his apartment and sustained a concussion and a hospital visit. That prompted coaches to hold him out of full contact drills for the entire month.
"I most definitely wasn't playing my best football at the beginning of the season," Ball said. "It finally started to click with me. I think I just started trusting everything, trusting the system, which I always have. But I believe from not being able to practice in the fall camp, I was kind of off."
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said he never saw a difference in the way Ball prepared for each game. He credited much of Ball's success to the holes being opened in front of him by the offensive line, although even Bielema admits Ball possesses an extra gear now.
"He's definitely feeling the mojo," Bielema said.
It's still a long way off, but another second half like the one Ball produced last season could get him back to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist. He has crept up to 14th nationally in rushing yards per game (116.6) and is tied for second in rushing touchdowns (11).
At the very least, Ball's confidence has been restored, and that should make for an interesting close to a senior campaign that was once deemed a disappointment.
"That's what I missed the first half of the season, the swagger, the confidence," Ball said. "Swagger in a good way, in a confident, not cocky way. I believe that's what every team needs."
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