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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Friday, June 09, 2023
Montee Ball

Senior running back Montee Ball racked up a career-high 247 rushing yards Saturday at Purdue. Ball had been averaging just 94.8 yards per game prior to Saturday’s burst.

Ball lifts Badgers in crucial road win

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind.—Merely three weeks ago, Wisconsin (2-1 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) senior running back Montee Ball’s chances at breaking the NCAA touchdown record seemed questionable, the team’s chance at returning to Indianapolis seemed equally bleak and its offensive identity was essentially non-existent.

But after Wisconsin rushed for 467 yards (the fifth-highest total in team history) and held Purdue (0-2, 3-3) to negative rushing yards until early in the fourth quarter of the Badgers’ 38-14 win Saturday, all of that suddenly changed.

In fact, if Wisconsin rushed for only one more yard Saturday, it would have doubled its total offensive production from the team’s 16-14 win over Utah State Sept. 15.

The win, which puts the Badgers in the Leaders Division driver’s seat, displayed the Ball of old. The 215-pound back rushed for 247 yards on 29 carries, good for an average of 8.5 yards per carry.

“Personally, I needed this. I wasn’t doing too well [earlier in the season], and a lot of things weren’t going my way,” said Ball, who also passed Ron Dayne for the most touchdowns (72) in Big Ten history.  “I’m really glad that I stuck with it and overcame that adversity.”

Junior running back James White was right behind Ball, averaging 7.8 yards per carry. He ran 16 times for 124 yards and a touchdown.

The Badgers received a scare early, though, as Purdue scored just 38 seconds into the game. Sophomore running back Akeem Hunt’s 44-yard return set up a 52-yard pass from senior quarterback Caleb TerBush to senior wide receiver Antavian Edison. TerBush capped the quick two-play drive with a 1-yard keeper.

Then, it was all Badgers.

Wisconsin evened the score just two minutes later with a 21-yard touchdown pass from redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave to redshirt junior tight end Jacob Pedersen.

“Didn’t like the way the game started, but the way our offense responded to play a four-quarter game like the way they did was exciting to watch,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said.

The Badgers went on to dominate the run game against the Boilermakers much like Michigan and senior quarterback Denard Robinson did last week, when the Wolverines ran for 304 yards.

If not for some shiftiness from Ball—which seemed to be lagging so far this season compared to last year—when the team was pinned on its own 1-yard line in a 7-7 game, the results very well could have been quite different.

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Purdue junior punter Cody Webster pinned the ball to Wisconsin’s 3-yard line with about two minutes remaining in the first quarter, and then sophomore tight end Sam Arneson committed a false start penalty to push the ball back. Wisconsin handed it off to Ball, who spun off a tackle that surely would’ve been a safety and turned the play into an 8-yard gain.

“When I was handing it [to Ball], I saw the collision right there,” Stave said. “But that’s something that he’s so good at, is shedding tackles, keeping his feet going.”

It scared Ball, too.

“He was right in front of me,” Ball said. “It was really hard to miss him. But that’s my job.”

“That’s a Heisman Trophy-type of run,” Bielema added.

Wisconsin might not even have had to worry, though, as its defense put pressure on the trio of Purdue quarterbacks and smothered the run better than any game so far this season.

The Badgers kept Purdue’s net rushing yards below zero as late as 13:07 left in the game, when senior running back Akeem Shavers scampered for 15 yards.

“We just had guys get to the edge and beat guys one-on-one and had some good push up the middle,” Bielema said.

Redshirt junior safety Dezmen Southward also intercepted a pass in the redzone from TerBush early in the first quarter with the score still tied at seven.

The pick wasn’t anything new to Southward, though, as Bielema said he had five interceptions in practice on Friday.

“Everybody was going nuts, and then lo and behold it happened in the first quarter,” Bielema said.

Pedersen finished with four catches for 77 yards and one score. He entered the game with just 10 catches for 111 yards and one score.

But the Menominee, Mich., native was pleased with his blocking improvements just as much as his ability to get open Saturday.

“If Montee, James, [redshirt freshman running back] Melvin [Gordon], if one of them get a big run off of one of my blocks, it feels just as good as if you catch a touchdown,” Pedersen said.

With Indiana and Illinois struggling, Wisconsin’s path to Indianapolis to represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten Championship game Dec. 1 seems much more clear. However, don’t think that will stray the team away from its 1-0 mantra.

“Now it’s Minnesota time,” Ball said.

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