Montee Ball’s run to this point started out of necessity more than anything.
Oct. 23, 2010, James White, then in the midst of putting together his Big Ten Freshman of the Year season, sprained his knee against Iowa. John Clay carried most of the load for No. 10 Wisconsin against the then-No. 13 Hawkeyes in a back-and-forth contest, but Ball made his mark.
One week after not touching the ball in an upset of then-No. 1 Ohio State, Ball chipped in 51 yards receiving on four catches, including a diving, fourth-down grab in traffic on Wisconsin’s game-winning drive. He capped that drive with an 8-yard touchdown run, dragging multiple Hawkeyes across the goal line with him.
The score was Ball’s fourth touchdown of the season and the eighth of his career. Pretty good for a sophomore in a talented backfield, but nothing special.
Special is exactly what the Wentzville, Mo., native has been since, though, and now he finds himself on the brink of history.
In the final five games of 2010, Clay only carried the ball 27 times due to injury. Ball took over, and he has hardly looked back.
Twenty-nine games and 69 touchdowns later, the senior needs just one touchdown to tie former Miami (Ohio) University star Travis Prentice’s NCAA record for touchdowns in a career at 78, and two to hold the mark by himself.
Ball has four opportunities to break the record—two remaining regular season games, the Big Ten Championship Game and a bowl game—but Saturday against Ohio State (6-0 Big Ten, 10-0 overall) will be his final appearance at Camp Randall Stadium.
“It’s just a tremendous opportunity for him, and with the chance to happen on Senior Day for him is also a tremendous opportunity,” redshirt junior center Travis Frederick said. “You can really just relish what he’s done and really appreciate the things he’s done.”
The “things” Frederick references include a laundry list of accomplishments and stats that jump off the page no matter how many times they are put on paper.
Ball has 26 multi-touchdown games. He tied the NCAA record for touchdowns in a season in 2011 with 39, which was more than 42 teams scored last year. He already holds the Big Ten record in rushing touchdowns at 71, and will tie Prentice for the NCAA record with two more. Prentice scored a touchdown every 15.3 touches for his career and a rushing touchdown every 15.6 attempts. Ball has scored every 11.3 touches and every 11.5 carries.
“I’m going to be honest, I’ve been kind of spoiled,” said Frederick, who came to UW in the same recruiting class as Ball. “In the time I’ve been playing, he’s been playing. How many touchdowns did he have last year, 39? Thirty-nine seems like a normal number to me just because that’s how it’s been.”
Ball is the NCAA’s active leader in yards (4,536), and has averaged 135.3 yards per game since that game-winning drive against Iowa, but his prodigious scoring rate is what will likely cement his spot in the annals of college football.
“Coming into this year, I don’t remember what he had, but I remember hearing how much he had, and it was hard for me to think about somebody going into the end zone that many times,” said Ryan Groy, another redshirt junior and classmate of Ball’s. “I didn’t think it was humanly possible.”
Ball said he had his own doubts about breaking the record after a slow start this year. After averaging 2.8 scores per game in 2011, he accounted for just three touchdowns in Wisconsin’s four 2012 non-conference games. Since then, he’s got 13 scores in six games.
Same guy, different attitude
Ball still credits that 2010 matchup against the Buckeyes as the turning point in his career. At a press conference Monday, he said he considered changing positions while he stood on the sideline. He thought he might play linebacker, if it would get him on the field.
“I was working hard, but I wasn’t working as hard as I am now,” Ball said Monday. “I wasn’t doing the things that you need to do every day to be a really good player in college football. I’m really glad that happened because it really opened up my eyes.”
Ball spent the offseason after 2010 working to become more agile and more powerful. He dedicated the last offseason to getting faster after the National Football League draft advisory board gave him a third-round grade. For all the change in the weight room, Ball’s ascension to celebrity status has not changed his demeanor, according to teammates.
Even after being a Heisman Trophy finalist and dealing with a turbulent offseason that included a ticket at the Mifflin Street Block Party and an assault that left him concussed and limited in fall camp, Ball stayed the course.
“He’s the hardest-working guy on the team, Frederick said. “He continually comes out and shows guys how to practice and leads by example.”
“He’s still the same person,” White added. “He knows when to have fun and he knows when it’s time to lock in and get down to business. He hasn’t changed at all.”
UW head coach Bret Bielema and his players have said this week they will not alter the game plan to get Ball the record Saturday. Ohio State is good enough as it is, they say. The Badgers have to worry about executing in general. Still, the preference is clear.
“Obviously it’s a solid defense and it will be a good challenge for us, but we’re really hoping to be able to go out and do it,” Frederick said.
The Buckeyes’ defense has allowed 11 rushing touchdowns this year, but just one in their last three games. Groy noted there’s no guarantee Ball will get two scores, but said he could envision the moment nonetheless.
“It’s always been in the back of our heads that we could achieve this,” he said. “The first one is going to be something that people are going to go a little crazy about, but the second one is going to be quite the celebration.”
Ball first came to Madison a touted prep prospect. He has dealt with the ups and downs of fighting for playing time and he has dealt with the adversity that comes with stardom. He has shared duties with other backs and also been the go-to guy. He has done more than most in the long line of running backs to come through Wisconsin before him. Saturday, his last 60 minutes in Camp Randall will come against the same team he didn’t get the chance to leave a mark on two years ago. This time, Frederick thinks it will be a different story.
“The way that it’s come about and the opportunity to finish it on Senior Day, it’s almost like, I don’t want to say a fairy tale, but a written story,” he said. “I don’t think it could be set up any better for him.”