UW Health Sports Medicine 

Lucas at Large: No longer a spectator, Ball steps into spotlight

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Thousands of celebrating Badger fans did something after Wisconsin's victory over No. 1 ranked Ohio State last season that tailback Montee Ball didn't do during the game.

They got on the field.

Ball didn't play a snap against the Buckeyes, which made his late-season run -- make that his late-season running -- all the more noteworthy, especially given the numbers that Ball has put up since.

Since Oct. 23, 2010, Ball has accounted for 25 touchdowns, including at least one score in each of his last 10 games. Oregon's LaMichael James has 21 touchdowns over the same time span.

What is significant about Oct. 23?

One week after the Ohio State game, Ball came off the bench at Iowa -- replacing the injured James White in the rotation -- and scored the game-winning touchdown on a clutch 8-yard run.

That restored whatever confidence that he had lost. Ball finished with a flourish by rushing for over 100 yards in each of the final five games of the 2010 season.

After Tuesday's practice, Ball reflected on the sequence of events last October.

"The week leading up to it,'' he said of playing Ohio State, "was really exciting because we were playing the No. 1 team in the country. You can't ask for a bigger stage.

"But afterward I was a little depressed and a little sad about it (not playing).''

That prompted an office visit with his position coach, John Settle, who's now with the Carolina Panthers. Ball let him know, "I'm still committed to the team 100 percent.''

What else could he do?

"Basically I had no other options,'' Ball said. "It was either get better or go home.''

Ball informed Settle, "I'm ready whenever my number is called to go in and produce.''

Although he wasn't expecting to play at Iowa, he kept his word and delivered.

"I knew I had to get better,'' Ball said, "and I had to stay hungry.''

That's so ironic today in light of the fact that Ball has shed almost 40 pounds.

On Monday's national teleconference, Ball referenced his hunger again.

"I'm really, really hungry for this game,'' he said of Saturday's Big Ten opener against Nebraska.

That's due in part to being a spectator the last time the Badgers got a primetime kickoff against a premier opponent.

"This is what I prepared for in the off-season, and I'm loving it,'' Ball said. "I'm making sure I'm staying on top of school and everything so there are no distractions at all this week.

"I'm putting the cell phone away and focusing on Nebraska.''

That's a major sacrifice in this day and age.

UW coach Bret Bielema appreciates Ball's commitment on multiple fronts.

"The immediate effect physically is just the burst in speed and the pure things that you see him do on the football field,'' Bielema said of his weight loss. "A lot of that is because of the heart and mind.

"He's doing some things naturally and instinctive that a lot of people just don't do.''

Bielema has a great deal of confidence that Ball and White can produce in short-yardage situations, even though neither comes close to matching the size of previous UW tailbacks.

"I think we're probably more explosive than we've ever been,'' Bielema said. "I understand we don't have that real big back like we had with P.J. (Hill) and John (Clay) and obviously Ron Dayne.

"But I like the running backs we have. I wouldn't really trade them in for anything.''

Ball doesn't believe the hype surrounding the Nebraska game will be a distraction.

"We're used to it from last year and Ohio State,'' he said. "And also with Russell Wilson coming into the program there were TV cameras on him throughout training camp.''

ESPN is featuring Wilson in a quarterback special to air in October.

"They followed him everywhere,'' Ball said. "It's second nature to us now. We're used to it.''

ON WISCONSIN