November 14, 2012

Ball just the latest bruising Badgers back

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In sports, some teams are just associated with certain positions.

When you think of the Los Angeles Lakers, you think of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, and now Dwight Howard jumping tip at the team's center spot. When you think of the New York Yankees, you think of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Bernie Williams roaming centerfield. And when you think of the Chicago Bears, linebackers Bronko Nagurski, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Brian Urlacher come to mind.

And while they may not have yet established the historical connection that the aforementioned teams and players have created, Wisconsin and its recent run of bruising running backs are beginning to become synonymous with each other in the college football landscape.

It started in 1999, when Ron Dayne ran for 1,834 yards and 19 touchdowns on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy, capping off a career that saw the 250-pound running back rush for more yards than anybody in college football history. The Badgers' tradition of having powerful backs run over the rest of the Big Ten continued into the 2000s, where Anthony Davis, P.J. Hill, and John Clay each took turns providing the cardinal and white with a steady identity of offense, that kept the conference's 'three yards and a cloud of dust' identity intact.

When Ohio State takes the field in Camp Randall Stadium this Saturday, it will be facing just the latest in a long line of impressive runners in Madison- and perhaps the best since Dayne won college football's most prestigious award 13 years ago- in senior running back Montee Ball.

At 5-foot-11 and 212 pounds, Ball certainly has the look of a bruising Badgers back, and he's compiled the stats over the past two seasons to back it up. After a 2011 season that saw the Wentzville, Mo. native lead the country in rushing with 1,923 yards and touchdowns with an NCAA record-tying 39 scores, Ball was named a Heisman Trophy finalist, ultimately finishing fourth in voting behind future NFL first round picks Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Trent Richardson.

Ball had the chance to join the three players who finished ahead of him in Heisman voting in the NFL last spring, but ultimately chose to return to Madison in hopes of improving his draft stock.

But after the first few weeks of his senior season, it appeared that Ball may have made a mistake in coming back to school.

As the Badgers stumbled out to a 3-2 start, Ball was thrice held under 100 yards rushing, accumulating just 61 yards in Wisconsin's loss to Oregon State, and 40 yards in a 37-26 win over UTEP. With the Badgers currently under a first-year offensive coordinator in Matt Canada after Paul Chryst took over the Pittsburgh program, OSU coach Urban Meyer said that Ball's early season struggles had more to do with him adjusting to a new coach than it did anything he was doing personally.

"He started slow, and I don't put that on him. I thought they had a lot of transition in the coaching staff. Their coaching staff has been together for a while, and you can tell," Meyer said. "They're probably a little more creative in the run game than they were earlier in the year."

Ball overcame his slow start in the second half of the season, rushing for a combined 773 yards in just the Badgers' last five games. Just three touchdowns away from becoming college football's all-time leader in that category, the senior running back enters Saturday's Big Ten battle as hot as can be, having rushed for 198 yards and three touchdowns in Wisconsin's 62-14 win over Indiana, en route to being named the conference's offensive player of the week.

"His strengths are great vision, and he's really a fast player. He pulls away from angles, and his toughness," Meyer assessed. "You can give him the ball a bunch of times, and he just keeps getting stronger. He'll be a very good NFL back."

Bringing down Ball won't be an easy task for the Buckeyes, but it could be the key to Saturday's game. With the Wisconsin running back having averaged just 66 yards in the Badgers' three losses this season, it's clear that if you can stop Ball, you'll likely stop the Badgers.

"Their strength is their run game and their power game and it's our job to stop that," OSU defensive end John Simon said. "If we can stop that run, that will be big for us."

Despite Ball's recent hot streak, the Buckeyes have great reason to believe that they'll be able to slow down the Big Ten's second leading rusher on his home field on Saturday. While facing the conference's top rusher, Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell, earlier this season, the Buckeyes held the Spartans' back to 45 yards in a 17-16 OSU win on Sept. 29.

But even with a rushing defense that ranks 16th nationally, Simon knows that stopping Ball will be easier said than done this Saturday in Madison.

"The best thing about football is every time they put the ball down, it's a new game," Simon said. "What we did in the past isn't going to help us this week. We're going to have to go out and do it again against a very tough team."


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