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Missed opportunities costly in Rose Bowl

January 1, 2011 Comments off

PASADENA — Many times, in talking about what his team did to get to a share of the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl bid, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema went back to their Oct. 2 loss at Michigan State.

As he saw it, Bielema’s team managed an 11-1 record with big wins over then No. 1 Ohio State and on the road at Iowa because of what they learned from the Badgers’ loss to the Spartans. Had it not been for that game, they wouldn’t be where they are today.

Ironically enough, nearly three months later, the issues that cost Wisconsin in its only regular season loss were much the same problems they had in the Rose Bowl against TCU. The Badgers couldn’t get off the field on third down and left plenty of points on the board through missed opportunities in the close loss.

“I don’t think anybody can beat us but ourselves,” said left guard John Moffitt. “I think we beat ourselves today. We didn’t do what we needed to do.”

From the beginning — literally as Montee Ball ripped off a 40-yard run on the first play from scrimmage — the TCU defense struggled to stop the potent Wisconsin offense. It was the Badgers themselves that did most of the work in keeping points off the scoreboard.

Unfortunately for the Big Ten champions, they followed Ball’s big run — which brought them form their own 32-yard line to the TCU 28 — with a false start penalty on Nick Toon. When the drive came to an end, the Badgers put three points on the board on a 30-yard Philip Welch field goal, which came on 4th-and-8 at the 13-yard line.

On the previous play, Toon added a second mistake, dropping a pass over the middle. Had he not been called for the false start penalty, however, the Badgers would have been in a 1st-and-Goal situation on that series, rather than 1st-and-10 at the 15.

“What got us here was clean execution and clean disciplined football,” quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “We didn’t do that today all around, myself included.”

Tolzien, normally as efficient a quarterback as you’ll find, went just 12-of-21 for the game, passing for 159 yards while getting sacked twice.

On their first drive of the game, Wisconsin left a potential touchdown drive out there, but managed to salvage it with a field goal. When they opened the second quarter with another long drive, they weren’t so lucky.

After moving the ball down the field from their own 23-yard-line to just outside the red zone, Wisconsin faced 4th-and-3 at the TCU 22-yard line. Trailing 14-10, Bielema sent Welch out once again for the 39-yard attempt. He missed it, wide left, for another three points left on the board.

“I just think we missed out on a lot of opportunities that we had,” left tackle Gabe Carimi said. “It’s really just missed opportunities through and through.”

The missed opportunities and sloppy play were not limited to the offense, either.

A pass interference call on Devin Smith played a role in TCU matching Wisconsin’s early field goal with a 10-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that took less than 4 1/2 minutes off the clock.

Later, on what was perhaps the worst pass of the day from TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, free safety Aaron Henry couldn’t come up with what could have been a game-changing interception.

On the first play following Welch’s missed field goal, a pass intended for Jeremy Kerley went through Henry’s hands over the middle. While he broke up the pass effectively, it was a very catchable ball for Henry.

Whereas the Badgers continually missed out on opportunities and left plenty of points on the board, the Horned Frogs always seemed to make the right plays at the right time. In the end, that made a big difference in a game decided by just two points.

“It is definitely unfortunate man, but sometimes that’s just the way the ball bounces,” Henry said of the loss. “They made a few more plays than we did. But this team fought hard every step of the way, and hats off to my teammates. But TCU, they did a tremendous job and unfortunately, they just made a few more plays than we did.”

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Ball would be starting running back right now

December 13, 2010 Comments off

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.”

Tolzien guides Badgers to Big Ten title

November 28, 2010 Comments off

MADISON — For the past two decades, Wisconsin has always been a run-first program. Over the last few weeks, the Badgers have been running wild, while opponents had little hope of stopping them.

On Saturday, when they needed a win to clinch a share of the Big Ten title, it was the passing game that really made the difference offensively. In his final home game, senior quarterback Scott Tolzien delivered one of the top performances of his career.

“Scott’s a guy that takes advantage of every opportunity, every play,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said. “He made a tremendous check there at the line of scrimmage on that last deep ball to David [Gilreath], that was all him.

“He had a huge strike there that just kind of finally put the dagger where it needed to be.”

Tolzien passed for 230 yards and four touchdowns on the day, while connecting 15 times on 19 pass attempts. He found five different receivers on the day, including four passes apiece to Nick Toon, Lance Kendricks and David Gilreath.

For his four touchdowns, Tolzien connected with Toon twice, while finding Kendricks and Gilreath for one score each. Kendricks led the way with 80 yards receiving, while Gilreath added 75 and Toon had 62.

“We have playmakers all over the board,” Kendricks said. “We deserve it.”

Kendricks’ four-catch performance came in less than 30 minutes of play, as the senior tight end left the game with an injury following his 29-yard touchdown reception with 3:14 to go in the second quarter.

Tolzien finally came out of the game himself following a timeout in the fourth quarter, earning a big ovation from a packed house at Camp Randall Stadium. When his name was announced during the pregame Senior Day festivities, he drew even bigger cheers.

With his performance, Tolzien had a passer rating of 250.1, which marked the fifth-best single-game pass efficiency in school history. On the season, Tolzien has a rating of 169.8 while completing 74.3 percent of his passes.

After running back Montee Ball got things rolling with three first-half touchdowns to put Wisconsin up 21-3, Tolzien delivered the next four touchdowns for the Badgers.

“I think it starts with the running game, and kind of always has,” Tolzien said. “Even a prelude to that, just the way the offensive line has been playing. They really got the ship rolling early and it really makes it easier on the passing game.”

Big day in Big House for Ball, White

November 20, 2010 Comments off

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.

The next 28 plays were runs by either James White or Montee Ball.

“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.”

Having a Ball against IU

November 14, 2010 Comments off

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.”

Moffitt and the rest of the offensive line opened up gaping holes in the Indiana defense, allowing Montee Ball and James White to put up huge numbers on the day.

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.”

 

Badgers remember veterans

November 11, 2010 Comments off

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.”

Notes: Third downs critical on D

November 7, 2010 Comments off

WEST LAFAYETTE – Most of the focus after the Badgers’ second half turnaround led to a 34-13 victory was on the turnovers, which seemed to spark the entire team.

Simple execution may have had something to do with it, too.

In the first half, Wisconsin ran into a familiar problem as it struggled to stop Purdue on third downs. The Boilermakers were 6 for 9 on third down conversions, as the UW defense struggled to get off the field and give its offense an opportunity to put point on the board.

“We knew the only way we were going to win this ballgame was getting off the field on third downs, and we were able to do that in the second half,” said linebacker Culmer St. Jean, who shifted the momentum with a third quarter interception.

The Boilermakers’ converting on two-thirds of their third-down attempts was even better than the 9 of 18 mark put up by Michigan State as they handed Wisconsin its only loss early last month.

If the Badgers didn’t turn things around after halftime, they were likely headed for a second road loss in Big Ten play. Fortunately, as head coach Bret Bielema said in his postgame press conference, they didn’t need anything resembling superhuman effort to turn things around.

“It was just about execution,” St. Jean said. “In the first half, we had people there and we weren’t tackling. That was one of the things that we stressed going into this game, we knew we were going to have guys in space and we had to get them down. We weren’t able to do that in the first half, and in the second half we just swarmed and kept getting the ball.”

In particular, defensive end J.J. Watt pointed to the team’s performance on first and second down defensively, which made third downs more difficult for Wisconsin and easier to convert for Purdue.

When they went out in the second half, the Badgers forced the Boilermakers to pick up more yardage on third down, averaging 3rd-and-5 on 10 attempts. Purdue went 3-for-10 on third down in the second half.

“When you’re putting them in 3rd-and-long, you’re going to give them tough situations,” Watt said. “We did that well in the second half and obviously that paid off.”

Injury updates

For safety Jay Valai, the bye week wasn’t quite as beneficial to his health as it was for most of his teammates.

After aggravating his right calf on Wednesday, the senior further injured it Thursday, partially tearing the muscle. When the game rolled around Saturday, he was noticeably limited by the injury, especially in the first half.

Eventually, the coaches were forced to sub Shelton Johnson in for Valai.

“Being a senior, you always want to be on the field, but at that point in time, I was more hurting the team than helping the team, so I think that was a smart decision,” Valai said. “It felt a little better in the second half, but it’s still something I need to work on.”

Amid the Badgers’ troubles in the first half, Watt appeared to have suffered an injury, leaving him on the Ross-Ade Stadium turf a little longer than everyone else.

He got up and walked off under his own power, but nonetheless, provided a scare to the Wisconsin players, coaches and fans. Afterward, he expressed little concern over the shoulder injury.

“I was extended out and I dove, and my shoulder kind of clicked in and out,” Watt said. “I’m feeling pretty good now. I’ve still got a little bit of adrenaline going, so we’ll see tomorrow, but I don’t see it holding me out at all.”

While there was plenty to celebrate about in the second half of the 34-13 victory, Wisconsin saw center Peter Konz go down with an injury. As he walked off the field afterward, Konz appeared to be in significant pain, while using crutches and wearing a boot on his right leg.

According to Bielema, the sophomore aggravated the right ankle he injured against Ohio State, which forced senior Bill Nagy to take over at center once again.

Quotable

St. Jean on his second-half interception

“First I went to my drops and it was an out route, so I knew I wasn’t able to get there. We had extra leverage on that side so I just dropped back and read the quarterback and he took me right to the ball.”

Watt on second-half comeback

“It says we have some good character, we have guys who understand the situation, when we get down we can’t get out. We came back in the second half and played like a first-place team plays, and that’s what we need to do from here on out.”

Watt on the team’s first-half play

“It wasn’t necessarily flat, we just didn’t tackle very well on defense and didn’t put together a very good half.”

John Moffitt on the first half struggles

“I think we came out the first half, there were a lot of looks we didn’t see [before], we weren’t executing right away, and maybe a little hangover from the two weeks off. But you don’t really want to lean on that excuse, because you’ve got to be ready to play at all times.”

Moffitt on the change after halftime

“Obviously, the second half, the execution was there, we were doing the right things, the defense looked great and that made the difference.”

Moffitt on what the comeback says about the team

“Guys didn’t quit. The guys fight to the end and that’s what we need because the game’s not over until the last second ticks off the clock and I think guys understand that.”

Mike Taylor on the team’s slow start

“Yeah, you could say we were flat. It took us a little while to kind of get warmed up I guess, but we came out excited in the second half and took care of business.”

Antonio Fenelus on the turnovers in the second half

“It was very big. In the first half we didn’t come out and do as best as we could. We got talked to after that and they just told us to go out there and just play to the best of our abilities and that’s what I went out there and did.”

Fenelus on getting two turnovers in one game

“It feels real good. I haven’t had a pick since the third game of the season, so it feels good to be just go out there and be able to make a play on the ball.”

Montee Ball on the shift in momentum

“We came in here, got our mistakes down and had a chance to talk to everybody. Coach had a chance to talk to us, and we knew we needed to come out and play Wisconsin football and we get focused because we weren’t in the first half. Once we came out and we knew our assignments, we went out and did it.

“In the first half, I had to knock the dust off a bit from the bye week and we all had to. But once we came out of the locker room, we knew ‘This is our half, and we’ve got to produce.'”

Scott Tolzien on the offense

“Offensively it was a struggle for us, and that’s going to happen at times. But I thought the defense was just tremendous, especially in the second half.”

Tolzien on the team’s slow start

“What frustrates me is, that was one of the things that we emphasized in the bye week. We wanted to start fast because that’s always a concern when you have a week off. We didn’t do that.”