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On the night of his 21st birthday, Montee Ball received a gift he’ll never forget.

Monday evening, Wisconsin’s junior running back was named one of five finalists for the 77th Heisman Trophy, awarded annually to the top player in college football. The winner will be revealed Saturday night in New York City.

Along with Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, Louisiana State defensive back Tyrann Mathieu and Alabama running back Trent Richardson, Ball’s name was called by former Ohio State running back and Heisman winner Eddie George on ESPN’s SportsCenter. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior running back is Wisconsin’s first Heisman finalist since running back Ron Dayne won the trophy in 1999. Running back Alan Ameche also won the award in 1954, and Ball is now the ninth Heisman finalist in UW history.

“Best birthday ever,” Ball said. “Best birthday ever. I was sitting at home, had the TV going and sat there and just watched it. As soon as [George] said, ‘alphabetical order,’ I knew if he didn’t say my name first, I wasn’t going to make it.”

After seeing his teammate quarterback Russell Wilson gain early-season Heisman hype after a stellar start, Ball has put together a dominant season. Through 13 games, Ball leads the nation in both rushing yards (1,759) and touchdowns (32) on 275 attempts, and his 6.4 yards-per-carry average is No. 4 nationally. Ball has caught 20 passes for 255 yards and six touchdowns, and his 38 total touchdowns put him within one of Barry Sanders’ all-time NCAA single-season record.

One season after sharing the load in a crowded backfield with John Clay and James White, Ball emerged as the Badgers’ go-to running back not long into the 2011 season. The fact that his stellar season has been bolstered by official Heisman candidacy is stunning, especially after Ball didn’t even take the field in one of last year’s biggest games against then-No. 1 Ohio State. Clay and White took all the running back snaps for Wisconsin in the 31-18 win, and Ball has repeatedly referred to that game as a significant source of motivation this season.

“At that time, I would never, would never, have thought that I’d make it this far,” Ball said. “I’m really glad to see myself stick through it and really fight, fight through that situation and just stay the course.”

Although his Heisman candidacy took a while to develop throughout the nation, Ball continued to emerge as more than just a traditional Wisconsin running back running behind a vaunted offensive line.

Against Purdue Nov. 5, with Wisconsin in dire need of a win after two stunning last-minute road losses at Michigan State and Ohio State, Ball rushed for what were then a career-high 223 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries (11.2 yards per). Ball rushed for 166 yards and scored three touchdowns the next week at Minnesota, and with the Badgers trailing on the road at Illinois Nov. 19, Ball rushed a career-high 38 times for 224 yards and scored another three touchdowns.

“I owe them everything,” Ball said of UW’s offensive linemen. “Honestly, everything. What they’ve done for me, obviously, is great. The holes that they create, and just the leadership that they have up front, is just great. It’s something I really needed and this program needed.”

In the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game last Saturday night in Indianapolis, Ball rushed for 137 carries and three touchdowns (he also caught one touchdown pass) on 27 carries (5.1 yards per). In the first quarter alone, Ball rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, keying the Badgers to a 42-39 victory in a much-anticipated rematch with the Spartans.

“Throughout the season, it’s kind of hard to really allow the awards to soak in because you’re preparing for the next team, the next day,” Ball said. “Now, it’s that time where it’s all finally sinking in. Honestly, I just don’t know what to say.”