MADISON, Wis. Wisconsin running back Montee Ball has drawn national attention for having an innate ability to dart around or bulldoze through defenders on his way to the end zone. During his college football career, he has done it with a frequency surpassed by only one man.
But what type of player would Ball be if he were a linebacker? Strange as it may sound, it's a position Ball considered playing just two years ago after coaches did not insert him into a game against Ohio State. He went home that night, and in the quiet moments of solitude and self-reflection, decided maybe he should switch to linebacker, a position he grew up playing.
Fortunately for Wisconsin, it never reached that point.
"I have some years of experience with linebacker, but I don't think I'd be pretty good right now," Ball said Monday. "I'm glad to see I stuck with running back."
Following a three-touchdown performance last Saturday against Indiana, Ball now stands just one touchdown shy of tying the all-time NCAA record of 78, set by Travis Prentice of Miami (Ohio) in 1999.
The tipping point in Ball's college career, he has said many times, was that 2010 game against the Buckeyes. Wisconsin knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State 31-18 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. When Ball, then the team's third-string running back, had no part in the victory, it made him realize he needed to work harder, change his practice habits, his exercise routine and even his diet. He dropped 26 pounds the following offseason and returned for his junior year as an entirely different player -- still playing the running back position, of course.
"I'm really glad that happened," said Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season. "When times get hard, I look back on that time because that was my first time never being able to contribute in a football game and that was really challenging for myself. I make sure to look back on it and keep telling myself I overcame that, so anything that comes my way now, I'll overcome it. I'm really glad that happened to me because it really opened up my eyes."
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that Ball can tie or break the all-time touchdown record this Saturday against none other than Ohio State. Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2 in the Big Ten) plays host to Ohio State (10-0, 6-0) at 2:35 p.m. CT.
And unlike the last time at Camp Randall Stadium, there's no way Ball won't be on the field.
"Montee knows it's a big deal because everybody has been telling him about it," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "We talked about it on Sunday. We've kind of kept him clued in of how many he needs and obviously one more to tie it and two more to get it. It will be a special memory for everybody involved."
Ball admitted there were times earlier this season when he wondered whether he would have a real opportunity to attain the record. He suffered a concussion the morning of Aug. 1 when he was assaulted while walking back to his apartment following a night out with friends. The injury forced him out of full-contact drills for all of fall practice.
When Ball returned, his running and cuts weren't crisp. Then in the fourth game of the season, he sustained another concussion against UTEP and left the game early. At the time, his rushing average stood at 90.0 yards per game, and he had just three touchdowns -- 14 shy of tying the all-time mark.
"At the beginning of the year, everything that happened to me this summer, coming out of the gates real slow, personally I kind of felt that it was way out of hand's reach for myself," Ball said of the touchdown record. "I'm really glad that I stuck with it and kept fighting, kept pushing, kept working hard with my teammates in practice. To see now that I'm close to getting it is an honor."
Bielema noted the most astounding aspect of Ball's near record is that he hasn't been the Badgers' featured running back during his entire four-year career. As a freshman, he gained 391 yards rushing and scored just four touchdowns. And as a sophomore, he shared carries with then-senior John Clay and then-freshman James White.
"He's really been the guy for two and a half years, which makes it even more remarkable," Bielema said.
Last season, Ball surpassed White on the depth chart and rushed for 1,923 yards with 33 touchdowns. His 39 total touchdowns scored tied the single-season FBS record set by Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State in 1988. Although Ball's statistics are down this season -- as virtually everyone expected given his spectacular junior campaign -- he has managed to put together another stellar year.
Through 10 games this season, Ball has rushed for 1,226 yards and 16 touchdowns. And he has put himself in position to break Prentice's all-time touchdown record with time to spare thanks to a string of solid performances in Big Ten play.
Ball has three more guaranteed games after this Saturday -- at Penn State, in the Big Ten championship and in a bowl game to be determined. But he has his mind set on ending the suspense against the Buckeyes as part of his senior day festivities.
"I believe it's the ideal picture basically for myself to break the record here at home in my last home game," Ball said.
Certainly, it presents a much prettier picture for Ball's career than if he had opted to become a linebacker two years ago. Bielema is glad it didn't come to that.
"If he'd came in and told me he wanted to switch to linebacker, I probably wouldn't have let him -- as bad as he might have pleaded," Bielema said. "I do think we always knew all along he was going to be pretty special."
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