UW Health Sports Medicine 

Lucas at Large: Ball means more than big numbers to Badgers

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When Marcus Cromartie was informed of the number, he did a double-take.

The number was 24.

Shaking his head, the Wisconsin cornerback conceded, "Wow, I honestly didn't know that.''

Cromartie paused to reflect on the number before continuing.

"I just know that he's in there a lot,'' he finally said.

"In there'' is the end zone.

Montee Ball has been "in there'' a lot -- 24 times through nine games.

That matches the school record set by tailback Brian Calhoun in 2005. For perspective, Ron Dayne had 21 touchdowns in 1996 and 20 in '99 -- the year that he won the Heisman Trophy.

Ball is two touchdowns shy of the Big Ten record which is shared by three prominent former running backs: Ohio State's Pete Johnson, Indiana's Anthony Thompson and Penn State's Ki-Jana Carter.

(Note: In 2006, Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan threw for 58 touchdowns, the NCAA record. In 1988, Oklahoma State tailback Barry Sanders had 39 touchdowns in 11 games.)

"Whenever I'm sitting on the bench and getting a breather or the coaches are talking to us about some adjustments,'' Cromartie said, ''when I hear, 'Touchdown' I know it's Montee.

"He just has a knack for the end zone.''

Having a "nose for the end zone or the goal line'' is an old sports cliché. But it would seem to be a fair assessment on how Ball has accounted for 46 touchdowns in 30 career games (13 starts).

"I'm surprised Montee doesn't have more touchdowns; he's extremely talented,'' said quarterback Russell Wilson. "You notice that on the practice field and in the film room.

"He always wants the ball in his hands and that's a great thing to have in terms of a running back that can make big time plays when things aren't necessarily always there.''

When UW coach Bret Bielema was an assistant at Kansas State, he came to appreciate the running talents and work habits of Darren Sproles. Ball has reminded Bielema of Sproles.

"I loved the kid (Sproles) and his competitive nature and I knew he'd have success,'' Bielema said. "It reminds me a lot of Montee's personality; just the vibe that he can give an entire team.''

Ball has definitely shown a presence in the red zone; dating to the late game-winning touchdown that he scored at Iowa last season. That gave him a huge confidence boost.

"I think he does know where he's at on the field,'' said UW running backs coach Thomas Hammock. "What I've tried to explain to him is if it's third-and-short it should be the same mentality.

"That's something that he has to continue to work on. We're third-and-short (in the first half) at Ohio State and we don't get it. If that was a goal line, would he have scored?

"That's how you have to have the same sense of urgency every time you carry the ball.''

In practice, Ball will "run out'' every run. Bielema remembered hearing how the late Walter Payton programmed himself to finish every run by running an extra 40 yards in drills.

Payton preached running with long strides and extended legs.

"The coaches have stressed with Montee,'' Cromartie said, "to keep running through to the end zone even if he gets tapped after a five yard gain in practice.

"That carries over to games. You want to get into the habit of running through things.''

In non-tackling drills, the tap from a defensive player signifies that the runner is down.

"I truly believe what you do in practice you do in a game,'' Hammock said. "You look at the Purdue game, he made a couple of guys miss at the second level and was running physical.

"He was also finishing runs, which is something that he has to continue to do. It's a week-by-week thing. Some weeks may not be as good as others.''

Cromartie can relate to that last point. After enduring some rough moments at Michigan State and Ohio State, he had one of his better all-around games against the Boilermakers last Saturday.

Cromartie subscribes to an old John Wooden quote:

"Success is never final and failure is never fatal.''

Wooden had a way with words.

"You have to go through hard times,'' Cromartie said, "and you will see good times at the end of the road. Part of football is having good days and bad days, the ups and the downs.

"As long as you keep competing, you're going to be OK in the end.''

On successive defensive possessions against the Boilermakers, Cromartie attacked the ball aggressively and broke up passes to wide receivers that could have kept the drives alive.

Along the Purdue sidelines, coaches and players were chirping for pass interference.

There were no flags.

"A lot of times they're trying to take the physicality out of football,'' Cromartie said. "But I was looking for the ball, I was going for the ball and I was trying to make a play on the ball.''

Opposing defenses have taken the same steps on the Ball with little success -- Montee Ball.

"I'm happy to see him do well after everything he went through last year,'' Cromartie said.

"Saturday is the reward for all the hard work that he has put in,'' said Hammock.

"The way he's wired has just kind of been special,'' Bielema said.

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