Sept. 24, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Shortly after learning that his day was over -- following a second-quarter touchdown run on which he took a hard hit from UTEP linebacker Jamie Irving Saturday -- Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball took a seat by himself on the bench.
He wasn’t alone for long. Ron Dayne joined him.
There has always been mutual respect between Dayne, the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner, and Ball, the 2011 Heisman finalist. So the timing was right for Dayne, who was watching the game from the UW sideline, to share a few words with Ball. Their conversation was brief.
Ball later said that Dayne helped him get through some of the disappointment that he was feeling from not only being removed from the game after sustaining what was reported as a head injury, but from losing a fumble for the first time in his career -- spanning 711 touches (rushes and catches).
“He told me that it happens to all of us,’’ Ball said.
On Wisconsin’s first offensive possession, center Travis Frederick was leading interference for Ball around the right end when UTEP safety Richard Spencer took a perfect tackling angle and jarred the football loose with a resounding hit. Cornerback Drew Thomas recovered on the Miners’ 36.
“He (Spencer) did a great job of hiding behind the blocker and poking out at the last second, and he got me,’’ said Ball, whose only other career fumble was recovered by Jared Abbrederis at Illinois last season. “That’s not in my nature to do that, and people can expect me not to do that again.’’
Regarding his end zone collision with Irving after his 1-yard scoring run, he said, “It was a good hit, helmet to helmet, it stung me a little bit. But they (medical personnel) were just making sure I was alright. There was no reason to put me back in the game when we have James and Melvin behind me.’’
James is James White, a junior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Melvin is Melvin Gordon, a redshirt freshman from Kenosha, Wis. White and Ball are close friends. “We have a really healthy competition,’’ Ball said. “I was telling James on the sidelines, ‘Go take the starting job. Go take it.’’’
White expanded on the pep talk. “He (Ball) was just saying, ‘It’s your game. It’s you and Melvin now. Go in there and take advantage of the opportunity and lead the team to victory,’’’ White said.
Added Gordon, “He (Ball) had all the confidence in the world in us.’’
It turned out to be justified. Gordon led both teams in rushing with eight carries for 112 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown. White had 15 rushes -- matching his total through the first three games -- for 65 yards and two TDs. He also caught a pass for 14 yards on a key fourth-quarter scoring drive.
“They did a great job of stepping up,’’ said Ball, who had nine carries for 40 yards before leaving the game.
There was something else that Dayne had mentioned to him. “He wanted me to tell everybody that they just needed to keep playing the game they love and have some fun,’’ he said.
Take that to mean relax and minimize any distractions or the burden of expectations -- just play. “We were having a lot more fun out there on the football field and that’s why you play the game,’’ White said. “I got my opportunity today. Hopefully it comes more often. I’ll just be waiting for it.’’
Gordon took it the same way. “We just needed to play like we practiced,’’ he said.
Nobody showed up more during training camp than Gordon, who was usually good for at least one highlight run every time the Badgers scrimmaged. Gordon, like White, was waiting for his chance.
“It meant a lot,’’ he said of the carries that he got against UTEP. “Every carry matters, especially when the game is on the line and you know it’s going to help your teammates. I was very excited about scoring. Anytime you get to the end zone it’s an honor to be there. Touchdowns aren’t easy to get.’’
That was definitely the storyline going into Saturday’s game. But UW offensive coordinator Matt Canada was able to open up the playbook for quarterback Joel Stave. Making his first career start, he benefited from the healthy return of Abbrederis, who had been injured in the Oregon State loss.
“It was really nice for him (Canada) to open it up like that and give me a couple of shots,’’ said Stave, who completed 12 of 17 passes for 210 yards, including a 60-yard TD to Abbrederis. “As a quarterback, you love throwing the ball when you get the chance to. That felt really good.’’
Stave’s postgame reviews were awfully good, too.
“I thought he was real calm,’’ said left tackle Rick Wagner, a three-year starter. “He took control of the huddle. I know sometimes it can get a little hectic out there. But we never felt that with Joel.’’
That was echoed by others.
“He played with a lot of confidence and stood in the pocket,’’ said Frederick, the second-most experienced starter on the O-line behind Wagner. “I know he got hit a couple of times and sacked (three times). But he never failed to stand in there and deliver a throw when he had the opportunity.
“I feel like he’s very consistent with how he plays. Whether you’re ahead or you’re behind or you just need a score, he’s going to get continue to play the same way. He just plays with so much confidence and (pausing to find the right word) … he just plays so relaxed, I guess you could say.’’
Ball was impressed with Stave’s poise and resilience, especially after getting sacked by UTEP defensive end Horace Miller on back-to-back series in the first quarter. “That’s the one thing that also impressed me,’’ Ball said. “He got back up after the big hits and did a great job.’’
Stave conceded afterward, “I’m going to be sore tomorrow. I haven’t been hit in two years.’’
There were some typical first game mistakes. There were a couple of errant throws; one was picked off, another could have been. There was a poor mesh and exchange with a running back. But it was all part of the learning process for Stave, a redshirt freshman from Whitnall High School.
“I learned you can’t ever get down and you have to stay positive, no matter what the situation is,’’ he said. “Even though I didn’t throw a whole lot in last week’s game (the second half against Utah State), being out there in the game atmosphere and seeing a different team made a difference.’’
It helped prepare him for the game speed against UTEP. Likewise, the Badgers must now get up to speed for Big Ten opponents, starting Saturday night at Nebraska.
“Overall, I thought our run game was improved,’’ Wagner said after helping the Badgers rush for 213 yards. “That gives us a little confidence boost.’’
There’s a much different urgency now to every snap.
“I think the first four games were a good test and a good challenge for us,’’ said senior linebacker Mike Taylor. “We saw a lot of different things, both offensively and defensively. Playing Nebraska we have to bring it all together.’’