WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. It was only one of the 78 offensive plays Wisconsin ran during its 38-14 victory at Purdue on Saturday, but the message Montee Ball sent on that play stood out. The run accounted for just 16 of Ball's career-high 247 yards, but the fact the senior picked up the yards while lowering his shoulder and flattening Boilermakers safety Landon Feichter was one of many statements sent by Wisconsin in its best performance of the season."It was great to see because we obviously had our struggles the first couple games, but I knew we had it in us," tight end Jacob Pedersen said. "(Montee) had one of the best games of his career, and to see that (hit), to see No.28 coming into the huddle fired up, that fires us up."Consider it a release of pent-up frustration or a warning to the final five teams on Wisconsin's conference schedule, but perhaps the 46,007 fans who braved the rain, wind and chill at Ross-Ade Stadium saw the return of a vintage Montee Ball.Plus, this was a performance that gave Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) a tiebreaker over Purdue and a 2.5-game lead in the Leaders Division race toward a spot in the conference championship game. Ohio State and Penn State are both undefeated in the Big Ten, but neither team is eligible for postseason play. That means Wisconsin just hammered its leading foil on the path to Indianapolis."(It's) about time," said Ball, who scored three times to give him 72 career touchdowns and break former Badgers tailback Ron Dayne's Big Ten and school career touchdown mark of 71. "This was the game we were looking for. We practiced really well coming into this game, and we've been getting better and better."Ball rushed for 1,923 yards and scored an NCAA record-tying 39 touchdowns last year, but his follow-up to a season that made him a Heisman Trophy finalist has not been worthy of the "Fall Belongs to Ball" Heisman campaign his school unveiled at conference media days in July.A few days later, Ball was assaulted on campus the week before training camp opened, and his first six games included two performances of 61 yards or fewer, a concussion, a fired offensive line coach and a yards-per-carry average that dipped from 6.3 last season to 4.0 in 2012. There had been little to celebrate about Ball forgoing the NFL draft until Saturday, when he set a new career high in rushing yards before the fourth quarter began and finished averaging 8.5 yards on 29 carries."In today's world, everybody wants urgency, everybody wants to be great, everybody wants to be undefeated, but when you have a team like we did you have to keep building," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "We had to make some modifications, move forward and that's what Montee has done. He's been patient, never really presses and lets the game come to him. He made a lot of good reads today."Though his hopes of returning to New York's Heisman banquet are slim, Ball's performance allowed Wisconsin to expand its playbook. Rushing for 190 yards and passing for 173, Wisconsin piled up more total yards in the first half against Purdue than it had in each of its three previous games.
The Badgers finished with 645 yards of total offense -- the second-highest total in school history -- and its 467 rushing yards were the fifth-best mark in school history."We were clicking as a unit," said junior tailback James White, who finished with 124 yards and a score. "We were having fun out there and bringing energy to the game just having confidence and working with each other, communicating, it's all it takes for us to get rolling."Averaging 3.3 plays of more than 20 yards through its first six games, Wisconsin ripped off seven such plays before halftime. After having only two runs of more than 20 yards this season, Ball had four Saturday -- the last being his 67-yard third-quarter score that gave Wisconsin a 24-7 lead just after halftime."I needed this," Ball said. "I wasn't doing too well earlier on in the season, and things weren't really going my way. I just have to keep practicing and practicing. I'm just playing for my teammates now. I'm becoming the player they were looking for."A week after the Boilermakers (3-3, 0-2) allowed Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson to carry for 235 of the Wolverines' 309 rushing yards, the Boilermakers saw three Wisconsin running backs top 80 yards. UW did most of it without senior left tackle Ricky Wagner on the field.After Wagner injured his right knee with 1:36 remaining in the second quarter, the Badgers adjusted by inserting Zac Matthias at left guard and moving Ryan Groy to right tackle. From there, Wisconsin rushed 34 more times for 277 yards (8.1 yards per carry) and three touchdowns and didn't give up a sack against a Purdue defensive front touted as one of the best in the conference."It was a testament to how we work and how we study the game," junior center Travis Frederick said. "We study it from all angles, so we know all the positions we have to play It shows how the offensive line plays the game and how (line) coach (Bart) Miller teaches us the game."Though Bielema and his players were coy leading up to a game that promised control of a watered-down division, White hinted that this road victory "meant something" as Wisconsin tries to re-establishing its dominance in the Big Ten.In the same breath, both White and his teammates acknowledged there is a lot of football ahead and an important goal next week of retaining Paul Bunyan's Axe against border rival Minnesota. "We will prepare just as well as we did last week or even better," White said. "Just keep winning."For more Badgers coverage, visit BadgersNation.com.