Oct. 15, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball was greeted by his family -- drenched from head to toe -- outside the visitor’s locker room at Ross-Ade Stadium.
The rain had finally let up Saturday, and there were signs of an imminent rainbow, real or imagined, after Ball rushed for a career-high 247 yards in a convincing 38-14 win over Purdue.
“They were smiling,’’ Ball said of his dad, Montee Sr., and his mom, Melissa, “and they were saying, ‘It’s about time. You finally look like you’re back.’’’
Montee Ball was smiling, too.
Moments earlier, UW tight end Jacob Pedersen had observed, “Whenever he gets a smile on his face is when you see him playing his best, and I think he had a ball today.’’
No pun intended.
“I thought he had one of the best games of his career,’’ Pedersen went on. “I thought he ran real hard. He was making guys miss. He was breaking tackles. I love it.’’
Pedersen later expanded on that thought by reiterating, “When No. 28 (Ball) has a smile on his face and he gets rolling, we’re going to have a good day. We have to keep him going.’’
Ball is all for that.
“The tide is turning,’’ he said, “and it’s a great feeling right now.’’
Reflecting on the season, which up until recently has had more low tides than high ones, Ball couldn’t say enough good things about the support that he has received at home.
“Without my parents, I’m nothing -- they’ve done a fantastic job raising three children,’’ he said, speaking for his older sister, Ashley, who turned 24 on Sunday, and his younger sister, Aireanna.
“The one thing about my parents is that they’ve always been very supportive and I love them to death. They’re the people that I can most definitely trust and go to in hard times.’’
Ball pointed to the fourth quarter of the Illinois game as the start of the turnaround. The Badgers not only exploded for 21 points, but Ball ran for two touchdowns against the Illini.
“That was huge,’’ he said, “because we carried the momentum into practice and we had a great week of practice, which we carried into the (Purdue) game.’’
What has been the difference?
“Energy and confidence,’’ Ball said. “It’s just that simple. The great thing about it is we know what we have been lacking and we’ve been able to correct it the past two weeks.’’
Ball scored three times against the Boilermakers and now has 72 career touchdowns -- six shy of the NCAA record held by Travis Prentice, who played at Miami (Ohio) in the mid-to-late ‘90s.
That was the Ron Dayne era at Wisconsin. Ball has also eclipsed his scoring marks.
“This is a birthday present for my mom,’’ said Ball, the smile widening on his face.
Melissa Ball was 41 on Saturday.
Watching her son run in the open field is the gift that keeps on giving -- to his UW teammates.
“He made a few runs today that were extremely impressive,’’ said linebacker Chris Borland. “That one in the second half (a career-long 67-yard touchdown) was a heckuva run.
“When he’s making plays like that, it gets everybody energized on the team.’’
Wisconsin overwhelmed the Boilermakers by rushing for 467 yards, and Ball was the triggerman.
“He’s getting back to being himself,’’ said tailback James White. “He was running physical.’’
That was personified on an 8-yard run from the UW 2 in the first quarter.
Purdue linebacker Sean Robinson, the Boilermakers’ starting quarterback two years ago against the Badgers, had a clean shot to bring Ball down in the end zone, but Ball was able to spin free from the tackle.
“That’s what makes him special,’’ UW coach Bret Bielema said of Ball. “That is what gets not only our guys excited but the people at the next level (NFL). That is a Heisman Trophy type of run.’’
Ball conceded that he made a conscientious attempt to get more yards after contact (YAC). After a review of the film, he could say he gained 194 of his yards after initial contact.
“Coming into this game,’’ he said, “I kept telling myself that not everyone is going to be blocked, so I need better YAC -- just knowing that I’m going to have to make some people miss sometimes.’’
Most of the time, the UW running backs had gaping holes to run through.
“It all starts with the offensive line,’’ said White, who rushed for 124 yards. “Whenever they’re blocking well, we play well. We try to pat them on the back and tell them, ‘It starts with you guys.’’’
That gave everybody a lift -- Wisconsin’s offensive linemen controlling the line of scrimmage.
“It’s a great sign,’’ Borland said. “They really performed like they had last year. They’ve been improving each week and it’s great to see those guys have success.
“You could certainly tell last week in the second half against Illinois they wore that team down throughout the game and it showed in the fourth quarter.
“There was always a lot of effort. I just think they’re kind of re-establishing themselves, whether it’s their technique or when that effort is applier or how it’s applied.
“They’re kind of getting back to their old form.’’
Despite losing starting left tackle Rick Wagner to an injury, the Badgers were able to adjust on the fly by shifting left guard Ryan Groy to tackle and inserting Zac Matthias at left guard.
“It feels like what we had going last year,’’ Groy said. “It’s nice to get back to the run game.’’
But there was much better balance against the Boilers in the respect that the tight ends got more involved in the passing game. Pedersen had four catches and Brian Wozniak had two.
“Obviously I was not playing up to my expectations and I took it hard on myself,’’ Pedersen said. “There was a lot of extra work after practice just trying to get my confidence back.’’
Pedersen’s blocking at the point of attack sprung Ball on numerous runs at Purdue. Does he derive more satisfaction out of throwing a block or catching a pass?
“It’s a mixture of both, it’s my play overall,’’ Pedersen said. “If Montee, James or Melvin (Gordon) hit a big run off one of blocks, it feels just as good as if you catch a touchdown pass.’’
Pedersen, like Ball, feels like the tide is turning for the offense.
“Things are finally starting to click for us,’’ he said. “Guys are having a lot more fun out there. To have a great offense, like we’ve been (in the past), you have to have balance.’’
A potent running game can have a positive influence on the defense.
“It helped by keeping us off the field,’’ said UW safety Dezmen Southward, who had his first career interception. “We love to see those guys succeed the same way they love to see us get three-and-outs.
“We love it when those guys can pound people.’’
Defensive tackle Beau Allen was motivated by what he saw.
“That was awesome to watch,’’ Allen said. “I remember one time I looked up at the scoreboard and we had like 350 yards rushing and they had 20 or something. That’s always good.’’
While Allen didn’t have one of Wisconsin’s five sacks, he did have a hand on a blocked punt. “Did you like that?’’ he posed afterward. “I jumped three or four inches in the air and blocked it.’’
Everybody was smiling after this one.
The last two weeks have been the perfect tonic for whatever has ailed this football team; especially since the Badgers were able to extend their winning streak to seven straight over the Boilers.
“For the most part, we felt like it was our most complete game of the season,’’ Borland said. “The fact that this was a big game in the Leaders Division was not lost on us, and the fact that we were their homecoming game was not lost on us, either.
“I think it was another step in the right direction. That’s what good teams do -- they get better each week and we’ve shown that we’re doing it and we need to continue to do it because we’re far from where we can be.
“I think the demise of Wisconsin football was greatly exaggerated earlier this year. We had a lot of changes and we played some good teams and didn’t play our best. But nothing has changed. We’re still the same guys and we do things the same way, so we expect success.’’
Minnesota is now on their mind.
“It means everything,’’ Borland said. “We stress keeping the Axe in our locker room.’’
“No matter the records, it’s a trophy game,’’ said Ball. “It’s about who wants it the most.’’
And the Badgers just want to keep the Ball rolling. Pun intended.