Wisconsin running back Montee Ball couldn’t believe it when freshman James White began taking most of the carries as John Clay’s backup.
After all, Ball was the one who emerged the previous season as a freshman himself and displaced Zach Brown on the depth chart.
”I don’t want to say I was sad, but I was a little shocked,” Ball said. ”James came in hungry and he deserved the spot. So I just made sure that I just kept my head on and just kept fighting and kept preparing.”
The sixth-ranked Badgers (8-1, 4-1 Big Ten) have had significant depth at running back in recent years, and Clay was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year last season with Ball behind him in spot duty.
But Clay sprained his right knee in a 34-13 win over Purdue last week and White was out with a left knee sprain of his own. Ball came in and ran for 127 yards and two second-half touchdowns as the Badgers rallied from a halftime deficit against the Boilermakers.
”Everyone wants to write and talk about (Ball) which is great because he’s a tremendous kid, he’s a great competitor, he wants to please people,” coach Bret Bielema said. ”He understands that for him to have success, he needs to come to work every day.”
Now Ball could make his first career start this week against Indiana (4-5, 0-5). White is looking to return in a limited role and Clay remains questionable, even though Bielema said he believes all three will play.
”The thing I love is Montee knew that James was getting those reps because of the production he was having on the field and didn’t hold any bones about it,” Bielema said. ”Now, Montee has kind of earned his own and probably is poised to maybe make his first start of the season this week.”
Clay has run for 929 yards and 13 touchdowns, White has 570 yards and six touchdowns and Ball is up to 346 yards and six scores. Ball acknowledged it was tough for him to lose his role in the order of running backs, but that he’s worked hard to be ready each Saturday.
”You’ve got to keep preparing because it’s true that you never know when the next person’s going to go down. And that’s what Coach B has been pounding in our heads because most seniors now who’ve started, if you ask them how they got their first start, the person in front of them went down,” Ball said. ”That week (against Purdue) I prepared harder than I ever have in the film room and stuff like that and it most definitely showed. So I was like, ‘I need to do this more often.”’
He may get his chance, even though both Clay and White are eager to return. White certainly didn’t enjoy the experience of watching the game from the sideline.
”I think that’s the first game I’ve ever had to sit out, so it was a different experience for me,” White said. ”I just don’t ever want to go through that again.”
The Hoosiers may be glad to see more of Ball and White than Clay. Indiana coach Bill Lynch said there is nobody on his team who can match Clay’s size and strength.
”You can give them all the looks you want but to try and simulate the back, that’s what is very difficult and that’s what makes him very unique,” Lynch said.
Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien said he’s confident in all three running backs no matter who takes the most handoffs. With Wisconsin’s powerful running attack, Ball understands and appreciates he’s just one piece of a powerful group.
”We all have a little something, like James’ is speed, Clay’s is power, and I handle third downs and stuff like that,” he said. ”We push each other. That’s how we do it here.”
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