MADISON — One of the biggest debates since the Badgers earned a Rose Bowl berth has been focused on the distribution of carries among three running backs.
Do you go with what’s working in Montee Ball and James White? Or do you rely on your veteran running back John Clay, who just happens to have a Big Ten offensive player of the year award to his credit?
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema may have answered those questions Sunday night, when he met with reporters.
“Right now, Montee would be our starting running back,” Bielema said, matter of factly. “John has to wait for a few other guys to get in. Montee’s playing as good of football as anybody. No question.”
Well that sure seems to clear things up. Or does it?
With three weeks remaining until the Rose Bowl, it would not be out of the question for Bielema to change his mind and put Clay in the No. 1 spot. After all, he did say “right now” when referring to Ball as his starter.
While all three running backs have clearly expressed their support for one another, they never stop competing for carries. The idea that they have to work in practice to touch the ball in the game is not lost on the players either.
“I’d like to get my spot back, like how we were in the beginning of the year,” Clay said. “But I’ve just got to work for it. The guys played a heck of a few games when I was out, so I’ve just got to prove it again.”
Another thing that people can’t help but notice when looking ahead to the matchup with TCU is the potential for Wisconsin to have as many as three backs with 1,000 yards rushing on the year.
“Hopefully we can all get to it in this Rose Bowl game,” White added. “I don’t think any school’s ever done that before.”
White leads the way with 1,029 after another big performance against Northwestern, with Clay and Ball not far behind. Even after missing so much time, Clay needs just 64 yards to give the Badgers a second 1,000-yard rusher.
Ball’s chances aren’t as strong, but 136 yards certainly is not out of the question for the sophomore. When you consider he’s rushed for 127, 167, 173 and 178 yards against Purdue, Indiana, Michigan and Northwestern, it would almost be a surprise for Ball to come up shy of the mark.
Add his apparent status as the starting running back and his chances certainly improve even more. It’s not really something that he’s focusing on, though.
“First and foremost, the goal is to come out with a victory,” Ball said. “But it wouldn’t be a bad thing to crack 1,000. It’s definitely something that’s in the back of my mind and it’s going to motivate me to run even harder.”
In an ideal scenario, a big first half by Clay and the Badgers could give Wisconsin a big lead, with two of three backs over 1,000 yards on the year.
If that were to happen, how would those two running backs feel about deferring to Ball, to let him become the third to reach the milestone?
“Oh yeah, get his 1,000 yards, too,” Clay said. “He worked hard this whole season, so we might as well feed him the ball.”
Bielema was not so quick to embrace the idea of boosting Ball’s carries to get him to the 1,000-yard mark.
With his focus on winning, and not just playing in, the Rose Bowl, he expected to do whatever was needed to win.
“It’s obviously very attainable, but it’s not on our game plan list,” Bielema said. “The awards we’re getting and the recognition we get is a byproduct of what we do, and that’s going to be one of those same things.”
ANN ARBOR — What do you do when you know what’s coming, and you still can’t stop it?
If the Wisconsin Badgers have the ball, more often than not, it’s going to be a running play. You know it, I know it, Bret Bielema knows it, the opposing defenses know it.
But it doesn’t matter.
Between its monstrous offensive line and all-Big Ten worthy running backs, Wisconsin is so good at what it does running the ball that you cannot stop it. As the saying goes, you can only hope to contain it.
“I got on (with offensive coordinator Paul Chryst) and said, ‘Hey, they can’t stop your run game,'” Bielema said. “Point blank. There wasn’t anything they could do to slow that down.”
With that in mind, Bielema and Chryst went to the run game when they needed it most. After an early second-half interception allowed Michigan to cut the lead to 24-14, the Badgers dropped back to pass just one more time in the game, though that play ended with quarterback Scott Tolzien rushing for five yards.
“Wisconsin’s always been built off the running game,” said White, a Big Ten freshman of the year candidate. “So whenever we’re going down, or things seem to be down, we always just go back up and just rely on the run game.
“Me and Montee just took it in our hands. We knew that the team was going to be counting on us, so we just went out there and had a great performance.”
White and Ball rushed for 181 yards and 23 carries and 173 yards on 29 carries, respectively. Ball did not lose yardage on a single carry, while White lost eight over the course of the game.
Combined, the duo netted 354 yards and six touchdowns on 52 carries, with an average of 6.68 yards per attempt. By comparison, Michigan rushed for 168 yards — 121 of which came from Denard Robinson — on 36 carries as a team, averaging 4.7 per carry.
“We just imposed our will on them,” Ball said. “The offensive line did a great job of pulling off the blocks.
“We tell each other, ‘We’re going to move this ball.’ What John Moffitt always tells us in the huddle is, ‘Let’s roll.’ That’s what we’re all about.”
With the way they’ve run the ball over the past few games, Wisconsin looks reminiscent of its glory years during the Barry Alvarez era.
When they went to back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1999 and 2000, the Ron Dayne-led Badgers would line it up with everyone in the stadium knowing they would run the ball. It didn’t matter.
Now, the Badgers have a strong enough rushing attack that they can do the exact same thing, for 28 straight plays even, with two “backup” running backs. As reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year John Clay watched on the sideline, his replacements have stolen the show of late.
Of course, at nearly any other school in the nation, Ball and White would be starters.
“Somebody just told me, 150 yards apiece, that was only the second time in school history, or something along that lines,” Bielema said. “It allows us to recruit good running backs, I know that.
“I get excited because, to see the smiles on their faces, and to realize that one’s a true freshman and the other’s a sophomore, is a pretty good feeling with the all-Big Ten player sitting on the bench. It feels good.”
MADISON – It was national news this week that John Clay would sit out Saturday against Indiana with a sprained knee.
But those stories forgot to mention one thing: it didn’t matter.
With the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year watching from the sideline, Wisconsin rushed for 338 yards against Indiana, picking up an average of 7.2 yards on 47 attempts. The Badgers added six touchdowns, one shy of the school record.
“That just speaks to the talent that we have at running back,” John Moffitt said. “It’s great to have those guys.”
On 22 carries – 20 of which came before halftime – Ball rushed for a career-high 167 yards and three touchdowns. Taking on much of the load in the second half, White carried the ball 19 times, picking up 144 yards and two touchdowns.
Not only did Ball pick up 167 yards, he never once lost yardage on the day. Afterward, he credited his success to the impressive play up front.
“I worked hard in practice and I’m glad to see that I carried it over to the game,” Ball said. “Those holes were huge, anybody could’ve ran through them. So I give credit to them for working hard up there.
Ball made his first career start Saturday against the Hoosiers, and for the second straight year, he put up big numbers against Indiana. Last year in Bloomington, Ball rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries in Wisconsin’s 31-28 victory over Indiana.
Three touchdowns for Ball on the day also marked a career high, while his 167 rushing yards was a season high for a Wisconsin running back. Ball also marked his best rushing performance at home by more than 100 yards, with his previous best being an 11-carry, 64-yard day in the Badgers’ rout of Austin Peay.
“Today was his first start of the year, that’s what’s amazing,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “I really do think Montee understands the schemes.
“He chose us because of the way we play and obviously it’s working very well for him.”
After missing the Purdue game last week with a knee injury, White returned in his usual role as the Badgers’ No. 2 back and put together an impressive performance.
While it took him a few carries to get back to his usual self, White eventually looked as good as he has all season. In the fourth quarter, White rushed for 44 yards on his final play of the game before sitting out the final two minutes.
The Badgers’ third touchdown drive of the game, which followed a missed field goal by Indiana, epitomized the performance Saturday by the Wisconsin rushing attack.
On first down, Ball ripped off a 36-yard run down to the Indiana 30-yard line. As Ball took himself out, White stepped in and took the next play 30 yards for the score. A two-play, 66-yard drive, the Badgers needed just 50 seconds to score the game-changing touchdown.
“I don’t know if Montee would have went right back and had that same burst,” Bielema said. “That’s the part that [running backs coach John Settle] has done a nice job ingraining in the running backs. You need to be fresh to go, and obviously they’re doing that.”
MADISON – In football, things often are described in militaristic terms, with the game frequently described as a war or battle. In reality, the sport and its players pale in comparison to those that dedicate their lives to service in our armed forces.
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the major hostilities of World War I formally ended with the Germans signing the Armistice. Since 1919, Nov. 11 has set aside to remember the nation’s veterans.
On this Veterans Day, several members of the University of Wisconsin football team will honor their family members that are serving or have served their country in the military.
“I’ll be thinking of my grandpa for sure,” running back Montee Ball said. “Last year, against Wofford, he passed away and that was really rough, so I’m most definitely going to think about him.
“I think he was in the Air Force, in the Korean War, but he didn’t really talk about it much. It was rough for him. I miss him a lot, and I’m definitely going to be thinking of him.”
Ball missed that game last year against Wofford as he dealt with the loss of a beloved family member. This week, he’ll be playing with his grandfather in mind.
A common theme among the Badgers was grandfathers who served in various wars, but who did not talk much about it with their grandchildren. Among those are linebacker Mike Taylor whose grandfather served in the Air Force during World War II, but died before Taylor was born, and safety Aaron Henry whose grandfather dropped out of high school to serve his country.
Another is running back James White, who was not sure which branch of the military his grandfather, who passed in 2005, served in. White’s cousin recently joined the Marine Corps, giving him another family member to honor on this day.
Like White, quarterback Scott Tolzien has a close relative currently serving in the military.
“My brother is currently at an Air Force base in Biloxi, Miss., right now,” Tolzien said. “He flies the C-130, a big cargo plane.”
Tolzien’s grandfathers each served during World War II, his paternal grandfather in the Navy, and his maternal grandfather in the Army.
With three close family members having ties to the armed forces, Veterans Day is important one for Tolzien.
“It’s close to my heart,” Tolzien said. I think it’s important and it should be that way for everyone really. We’re pretty blessed to have it the way we have it because of the people that are serving and protecting our country.
“Hopefully everyone will take a second out of their day at least to think about it. I think it would be a shame if you didn’t take some time to think about it on Thursday just because there’s so many people that have served our country.”
Safety Jay Valai has two cousins currently serving, one in the Coast Guard and another in the Marine Corps.
When asked which branch he would choose if he had the chance, Valai debated a few before going with the Air Force, though he would also consider the Army and Marine Corps.
“If I could swim, I’d do it all like a Marine, but I can’t swim, little known fact about me,” Valai said. “So, I guess I’d go with the Air Force. If I got to fly an airplane, I’d do Air Force.”
Defensive end J.J. Watt was one of the few whose grandfather had told him stories of his time in the military, but Watt still was unsure which branch he served in. What he did know was that his grandfather served in the Korean War, and fought in the Battle of Porkchop Hill.
Beyond that, Watt said he has told him plenty of good war stories, despite never specifying which branch of the armed forces in which he served.
“I’m definitely going to give him a call and thank him. And I’m going to put on my Twitter a thank you to all the veterans,” Watt said. “I’m thankful to have him around still obviously and thankful for everything he did. We wouldn’t be doing what we do if it weren’t for those people, so we need to thank them every chance we can.”
WEST LAFAYETTE – Talk about taking advantage of what is given to you.
After spending the first two months of the season seeing his playing time severely limited due to the emergence of freshman James White, third-string running back Montee Ball has never stopped working to help his team.
It paid off in a big way Saturday at Purdue.
Ball reemerged as an important part of the Wisconsin offense when White went down with an injury at Iowa, scoring the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
His performance at Ross-Ade Stadium was even better.
“Montee knew pretty much all week it was going to be John and Montee,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “He was snapped in and just another example of great preparation by him.”
For the first time this season, Ball knew all week he would be the No. 2 option out of the backfield, a role he played well late in his freshman season.
When Saturday’s game rolled around, Ball simply went out and rushed for 127 yards on 21 carries and two big second-half touchdowns.
“I knew that the team was going to look for me to come in strong,” Ball said. “I wasn’t going to let them down.”
Early on, the Badgers went with a heavy dose of John Clay, with less than desirable results. When Clay got banged up during the course of the game, the load was all on Ball’s shoulders.
To say he responded well would be quite the understatement.
Ball finished the first half with just nine yards rushing on four carries, eight of which came on a single carry in the Badgers’ final drive of the second quarter. Over the final 25:32 of play, Ball ran for 118 yards on 17 carries, for an average of nearly seven yards per rush.
Midway through the third quarter, Ball helped the Badgers reel off a two-play, 51-yard, 38-second scoring drive. After a 20-yard pass to Nick Toon, Ball took the ball down the left sideline 31 yards for the score, diving for the pylon and giving UW some breathing room at 20-10.
“I just kept running behind the blocks, waiting for them to set up,” Ball said. “It was just there, so I just kind of leaped over them a little bit and reached the ball a little bit.”
Ball reeled off another run of 26 yards on the Badgers’ first drive of the fourth quarter before getting his second touchdown of the day when Wisconsin got the ball back for a second drive in the period.
Following Mike Taylor‘s impressive interception, Ball took the handoff twice, losing a yard on first down and finding a huge hole for his second touchdown of the day, this time from 15 yards out.
“He did a great job,” John Moffitt said of Ball. “The way he can step up, it’s so nice to have three backs that can do that. Running the football here is not easy, we put a lot of carries in your hands and it’s going to be tough, but Montee definitely stepped up.”
Ball found out just what it meant to be the Badgers’ every down back on the game’s final drive. Wisconsin ran 10 plays for 40 yards, eating up 5 minutes and 50 seconds off the clock.
Each of the 10 plays was a handoff to Ball.
“When you come here, the team’s going to put the load on your shoulders and you’ve got to be able to carry it,” Ball said. “That’s what I feel like I did. The O-line did a great job up front pushing them, and I just don’t want to let them down.”
MADISON – It’s no secret that most Wisconsin fans would like to see running back John Clay play at less than his current weight. Sometimes, though, his 6-foot-1, 248-pound frame works to his advantage.
For instance, while it can be easy to find a speedy member of the scout team that will make guys miss, it’s a little tougher to replicate a guy of Clay’s size with the speed and running ability that he possesses.
A year ago, that translated into 24-carry, 123-yard, three-touchdown performance for Clay in the Badgers’ impressive 37-0 victory over Purdue. Just two weeks earlier, Purdue had limited Ohio State to just 66 yards on 28 carries as they knocked off the seventh-ranked Buckeyes.
“Just coming straight downhill,” Clay said of what worked for him against the Boilermakers. “They’re a spread team, so they’re used to seeing the spread in practice every day. Having our big guys up front and me coming downhill, I think it’s kind of hard for them to simulate that.”
Against two of the top defenses in the conference, Ohio State and Iowa, the Badgers’ No. 1 running back put up two of his most impressive performances of the season. Rushing a combined 45 times, Clay picked up 195 yards while reaching the end zone four times.
Having reestablished himself as the top option out of the backfield, and especially with James White coming back from injury, it would come as no surprise to see Clay get a significant majority of the carries Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind.
While White’s shifty, speedy style usually works as a good change of pace for Wisconsin, a heavy dose of the bigger, stronger Clay could be in the Badgers’ game plan this week.
Is Clay ready for a potentially increased workload this week?
“Yeah. You know, James is trying to come back from an injury, and I’m putting the bulk on my shoulders,” Clay said. “I got the rest I needed, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Clay missed some time during the Badgers’ 31-30 victory at Kinnick Stadium himself, which led to the opportunity for Montee Ball to stretch the ball across the goal line for the game-winning score in the fourth quarter.
Ten days removed from that physically and emotionally draining battle with the Hawkeyes, Clay said he’s ready to go against the Boilermakers. He did not, however, hesitate to acknowledge the importance of the bye week.
“It was some much needed time. Just getting my body back right and just giving us a chance to really get ready for Purdue,” Clay said. “I feel I’m about 100 percent. My ankles are good, that rest we had really helped a lot of people on the team that needed to rest to finish the season out strong.”
IOWA CITY — When talking about his football team, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema likes to say that it’s not what happens, but how you react to what happens. You can’t react much better than the Badgers did Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Two days before a pivotal Big Ten matchup with Iowa on the road, Bielema alluded to a number of veteran players that might not be able to go against the Hawkeyes. Come game time, Bielema and the Badgers found themselves without two key players: Nick Toon and Jordan Kohout.
“Brian [Lucas] hit me up early this morning and wanted to confirm the starting lineups, and I basically said ‘I wish I knew,'” Bielema said. “There was as much as seven of our starters that weren’t sure who was going to play or go or not.”
Even with all of that, the 10th-ranked Badgers came away with a 31-30 victory over the 12th-ranked Hawkeyes, putting themselves in excellent position in the Big Ten title race in the process.
“Iowa is a great team, and they had a great defensive four up front,” Gabe Carimi said. “We came out there and attacked it and got a ‘W’.”
With Kendricks out, tight ends Jacob Pedersen and Jake Byrne stepped up, grabbing four balls for a combined 42 yards. In place of Konz, the Badgers shuffled the offensive line without missing a beat, moving Bill Nagy from tight end to center.
But at no position was there a more impressive replacement than in the backfield.
Relegated to third on the depth chart with the emergence of White, sophomore Montee Ball‘s opportunities have been few and far between this season. But when called upon in a big moment, Ball reacted better than anyone could have expected.
“I stay ready and kept my mind right,” Ball said. “I’m very proud. I had a talk with [running backs] coach [John] Settle, and I told him that I was going to leave it in God’s hands. God has a plan for me and I just felt like it happened today.”
Carrying the ball three times, Ball picked up 18 crucial yards on the ground in the game. More importantly, he broke the plane of the goal line just enough for the game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
With the effort of those called upon to step up in critical situations, the Badgers were able to play the game the way they wanted to, which included a number of bold moves by the head coach.
Trailing 13-10 and facing 4th-and-1 on the Hawkeyes’ 2-yard line in the third quarter, the Badgers opted against the game-tying field goal. Instead, they went for it, and one of two Clay touchdown runs put them back on top, 17-13.
Later in the game, with UW trailing 30-24 late in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin got the look they were hoping to see from the Iowa defense on fourth down. The fake punt call was on, and punter Brad Nortman rushed for 17 yards, sending the momentum in the Badgers’ favor.
“It really did work out perfect,” Nortman said. “Our guys sold it perfectly and I went just about until I was about to drop the ball and it just all worked out perfectly. Once I saw it, I just knew we had the perfect play.”
Between the big games by replacements and bold moves in their play calling, the Badgers put together the most important reaction of the day. Following a program-defining victory over No. 1 Ohio State a week earlier, Wisconsin responded with another major win on the road over a Big Ten opponent.
Good teams pull off upsets at home, but it takes a great team to knock off a formidable opponent on the road.
“It was just four quarters of fanatical effort,” Bielema said. “Great individual efforts by some of our guys, but yet, unit efforts. Whether it be offense, defense or special teams, guys really had a tremendous amount of faith and executed.”