Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 1/1/12
LOS ANGELES -- The natural inclination is to pigeonhole Montee Ball and LaMichael James as nothing more than products of systems that suit the specific styles of each football player. The problem with such conjecture, however, is that it does a great disservice to each running back's actual all-around talent. Yes, Ball is a bruising 5-foot-11, 210-pound bowling ball for Wisconsin that bangs his way behind a massive offensive line in a methodical, pro-style scheme. And yes, James is a shifty speed demon for Oregon two inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter than Ball who zips around defenders in a no-huddle, spread attack. It is easy and fun and appealing to characterize a clash between the two runners simply as Power vs. Speed; Force vs. Flair; Smash vs. Dash. But there is a reason both are considered among the top running backs in the nation, and it's based in part because neither is strictly one-dimensional. "One thing people don't like to give LaMichael credit for, he can have a little power running game," Ducks linebacker Josh Kaddu said. "He'll lower his shoulder and bring it to you every once in a while. Montee Ball is going to lower his shoulder and run you over, but he'll give you a quick step outside and get by you, so you've got to watch out for both running backs." An entire nation will be watching both players' skills at 2 p.m. PST Monday, when Oregon (11-2) and Wisconsin (11-2) finally meet in the Rose Bowl after a month of preparation. Ball and James represent two of the marquee names that make Monday's match-up so intriguing. "If you truly are a college football fan, you'll like watching these guys," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. Ball and James were two of three Doak Walker Award finalists this season, an honor given to the best running back in the country. James was a Hesiman Trophy finalist a year ago, while Ball burst onto the scene this season to unexpectedly become a Hesiman finalist himself. Ball vaulted up the depth chart at Wisconsin from third-string running back a year ago to starter after slimming down by more than 20 pounds in the offseason. The weight loss, Ball said, made him feel less top-heavy and allowed him to gain speed without sacrificing strength. "One of my strengths is, as the quarters go on, as the game goes on, I believe I get stronger come fourth quarter, rather than the first quarter," Ball said. Ball demonstrated his newfound power and speed combination by rushing for 1,759 yards with 32 touchdowns this season and averaging 6.4 yards-per-carry. His 38 total touchdowns stand just one shy of tying the NCAA record for FBS players, set by Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State in 1988. "He's a big guy -- well, he's bigger," James said of Ball. "But he has really great feet. You know, he has a lot of touchdowns so he's doing something right. Some of the moves that he has, to be a player like him is impressive, and the physicality I think is pretty nifty, too." While Ball emerged seemingly from nowhere, James began the season as an odds-on favorite to be named a Heisman finalist again. But an elbow injury in the season-opener against LSU forced him out of the next two games, and he would up finishing 10th in the final Heisman balloting. Still, James put up some eye-popping numbers after returning from injury. This season, he has tallied 1,646 yards rushing with 17 touchdowns. Four times, he rushed for more than 200 yards, including during Oregon's victory against UCLA to win the inaugural Pac-12 championship. His average yards-per-carry is an astounding 7.4. "There's times in practice he'll do something and you're like, 'Oohh,'" Ducks coach Chip Kelly said. "A lot of times we catch ourselves as coaches, we just look at each other and shake our head and go, 'All right.'" Sometimes James surprises even himself when he's on the field. "Half the things I do, I still wonder like, 'How did I do that?'" James said. "I just run. Everything is instinctive to me." What likely won't come as a surprise for both Ball and James is each player's impending decision to turn pro. Both are juniors this season, but their success, coupled with the relatively short shelf life of running backs in the NFL, means they'll likely both put their name into the draft. The deadline for underclassmen to apply early for the NFL draft is Jan. 15. It would appear that Ball's skill set may translate better to the NFL because he is bigger and already has learned to rush in a pro-style offense. "Is there any spread team besides the Broncos?" Ball said. "That's pretty much all I see in the league of a spread team. I have big linemen in front of me, a pro-style offense. I believe it will prepare me for the league." Then again, James also could surprise in the NFL. In addition to his speed, Oregon players say he has developed patience to run behind his blockers and wait to pounce until a hole is finally created. He also possesses the strength to escape tackles when necessary. "He's got a little bit of everything" Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas said. "He's got a little bit of juice, power. He can run fast. He is an all-around guy, too." It should make for an all-around entertaining match-up between Ball and James on Monday. Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.
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