The questions about availability and running order have made their way through the Badgers’ offensive position groups this season.
A competition at right guard between redshirt junior Zac Matthias and redshirt sophomore Kyle Costigan ran through camp and the first three weeks. The wide receivers lost redshirt junior Jared Abbrederis for a game and half due to a concussion suffered Sept. 8 against Oregon State. Redshirt junior transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien was benched at halftime of the same game in favor of redshirt freshman Joel Stave because of ball—security issues.
All of those positions seemed to settle in Saturday’s 37-26 win over Texas El-Paso. Costigan turned in a solid performance at guard, Abbrederis finished with a career-high 147 receiving yards and Stave played well in his first start.
This week, the running backs get to answer all the questions.
After senior All-American Montee Ball exited Saturday’s game after taking a hard hit on a second-quarter touchdown run, he participated only in conditioning drills Tuesday. He said he passed cognitive tests Sunday morning but did not know what it would take for him to be cleared for action when the Badgers (3-1 overall) open conference play on the road against Nebraska (3-1) Saturday night.
Even if he has not been cleared, Ball made clear he thinks he’ll be ready.
“Do I think I’m playing?” he said when asked by a reporter Tuesday. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m going to play. No doubt.”
Ball said training staff wanted to see how he reacted to the conditioning drills and insisted he felt fine.
“Today we took it slow, tomorrow I’ll probably get a green (no-contact) jersey for the rest of the week, and we’ll see from there,” said Ball.
Ball suffered a concussion against Michigan State last season and another this summer, when he was attacked by five males late at night on University Avenue. He said Saturday’s symptoms were far less severe than this summer and he did not have any reservations about playing despite a growing history.
“Hopefully it doesn’t become a problem or an issue,” Ball said. “What the doctor said is it doesn’t really matter how long you wait if you pass all the exams. Having two concussions, you’re always prone, or possibly prone to having another one. I just have to make sure I stay on top of the symptoms and tell the truth.”
In the event that Ball does not play, the running back position is in capable hands. Junior James White, a former Big Ten freshman of the year, impressed head coach Bret Bielema with his ability to run between the tackles Saturday in an increased role.
“It’s just been a while since we’ve seen him in that role, but I thought he was exceptional,” Bielema said.
White finished with 65 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.
In his first significant playing time of the season, redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon racked up 112 yards on eight carries. He added a touchdown late in the fourth quarter on a 26-yard burst around the left end and has been used primarily coming in motion from a slot receiver position. The Kenosha, Wis., native also saw snaps from the tailback position and said it was helpful to be able to study himself, instead of the other running backs, this week on film.
“You’re used to watching Montee and learning from his mistakes and learning from what James and Montee are doing,” Gordon said. “When you’re actually out there yourself, you can actually study yourself and get better and craft yourself.”
Success aside, Gordon said he would expect the full complement of ball carriers to be available in Lincoln, Neb.
“Knowing Montee, he’s a fighter and his senior year and he’s a leader on this team, he’s going to do whatever to get back,” Gordon said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to be playing Saturday.”