STATE COLLEGE, Pa.—The conflict of emotions that Montee Ball must have felt Saturday could almost be felt as he spoke with the media at Beaver Stadium after Wisconsin’s 24-21 overtime loss to Penn State.
It’s understandable, too, considering the peculiar situation the star senior running back found himself in.
Not three hours before, he found the endzone for the 79th time in his career, passing Miami (Ohio) great Travis Prentice and setting the Football Bowl Subdivision record.
Then, over the ensuing three quarters of regulation and overtime, he saw the offense that started so explosively come to a complete, grinding halt. He saw Penn State thoroughly control the game and withstand a tying touchdown with 18 seconds left. He saw PSU sophomore kicker Sam Fricken’s 37-yard overtime attempt sail through the uprights and he saw his own kicker, redshirt sophomore Kyle French, miss a 44-yard try that would have forced a second overtime.
He knows the Badgers have now finished their regular season 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the Big Ten, and that three of those four losses came in overtime and the other came in Lincoln, Neb. after UW lead 20-10 at halftime.
He also knows the Badgers will play in the Big Ten Championship game against Nebraska in Indianapolis next Saturday.
What, then, is the takeaway in a game that saw the Wentzville, Mo. native make history but also saw Wisconsin suffer its fifth one-possession loss of the year?
“One thing we can take away from all of it is that we kept fighting,” said Ball, who finished with 111 yards on 27 carries. “Everyone’s not looking around for somebody to make a play. They’re putting it on themselves.”
The Badgers made plenty of plays early Saturday, rolling up 127 yards and 14 points in their first eight plays. Then they went cold, and scoreless, until the game-tying drive in the closing seconds of regulation.
“We are a play away each game,” Ball said. “That’s why it’s so frustrating, I think, is that we’re right there. We’re right there on the edge and we just can’t do it. We will, though.”
One play Ball mentioned explicitly was his first carry in overtime. He started right and saw daylight, but Penn State senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill (12 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 tackles for loss) managed to drag him down just past the line of scrimmage.
“I thought I was gone,” Ball said. “My eyes got really big, but we knew what [Hill] was capable of doing and he made a great play.”
Ball’s record-breaking score came early and might have been slightly lost in the wash because of the way the game ended. The 2011 Heisman trophy finalist took a toss to the right, waited for the blocking to set up and scooted 17 yards up the right sideline and into the endzone untouched.
“They made it extremely easy for me,” Ball said of his blockers. “It would have been sad if I wouldn’t have scored.”
Now, with the record out of the way and two ultimately meaningless games in the past, the emotions should be much more straightforward for the running back and his teammates. The two overtime losses do not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but the result of Saturday’s title game will decide if the Badgers make a third consecutive trip to Pasadena, Calif. or if they are sent elsewhere for the postseason. The preparation for that game, Ball said, is what matters at this point.
“It comes down to the seniors,” he said. “The seniors and the leaders, because the coaches can only say so much, but behind closed doors, you’re hanging out with your teammates and that’s when you have to rally together and build that chemistry.”
Because Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for postseason play, the Badgers have two more games guaranteed. How UW’s star tailback feels after those two games should be far easier to deduce.