When Montee Ball took the ball at the 7-yard line, he cut left, leapt into the air and landed on his left foot before flopping into the Camp Randall end zone. The perfect Senior Day tale, the one where he would tie and then break the all-time NCAA touchdown record, seemed to be falling perfectly into place.
But that tale quickly turned sour when Ball dove over a goal line pile-up with his arms fully extended, as Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier jarred the ball loose. The Buckeyes recovered the fumble at the 6-yard line and that second quarter score would be his lone touchdown of the game as Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) fell to Ohio State (11-0, 7-0) in a 21-14 overtime loss Saturday.
“Stupid play. Stupid decision,” Ball said of the play. “I just feel like I had to do something in that situation because they submarined our linemen, [the defensive line] kind of dove to the ground and it was clogged up.”
A demoralized Ball returned to the sideline feeling as if he had cost the team not only the game-tying score, but a shot at handing the undefeated Buckeyes their first loss of the season.
“He was pretty upset,” junior running back James White said. “Anybody in that position probably would be, so I just went over there, talked to him, was like, ‘Keep your head up, the game’s not over with, we have enough time to come back and win this.’”
White’s words of encouragement held true less than three minutes of gametime later.
A well-executed two-minute drill from UW quarterback Curt Phillips gave Ball another shot at career touchdown No. 79 — the record-breaker — but Ball’s two carries amounted to only four yards in Wisconsin’s only drive of extra period.
“Extremely bittersweet,” Ball said postgame. “It would have been perfect for us to win with a touchdown in overtime and to break the record, but Ohio State played well and they deserve it.”
The senior tailback finished the day with 191 yards on 39 carries, pushing and pounding his way to an average of 4.9 yards per carry. Redshirt senior center Travis Frederick described Ball’s physical style as “running as hard as I’ve ever seen him run today.”
But after that fourth quarter mistake, it was difficult to recall the momentum-inducing excitement of the running back’s 78th career touchdown.
As Ball climbed back to his feet after crossing the goal line, the neighboring student section erupting in cheers, he took a moment to soak in the situation before jogging to the sideline with the historic ball placed firmly in his right hand.
The next stop was the bench, where he thanked the offensive linemen who paved the way for the impressive touchdown total that tied the NCAA career record.
“It was just like, ‘Let’s keep going, let’s get the next one,’” Frederick said of Ball’s message to the offensive line after the touchdown. “You guys are doing great up there, and keep going.”
Although his parents joined him on the field pregame and created what he described as the “ideal picture” for breaking the record earlier this week, the game did not pull together in picture-framed fashion for the senior tailback.
But as it became increasingly apparent that the stars were not aligning for the senior’s big day and that he could not yet add his name to the NCAA record books, UW head coach Bret Bielema could not contain his emotion after the loss.
“Seniors, those guys mean the world for me. I know Montee’s hurting, I know he wanted that [record],” Bielema said, his voice cracking as tears welled up in his eyes. “He was like a man possessed there in the second quarter, fun to watch. But the good news is it will make everybody stronger, just sucks to go through.”
Picking up 41 yards in the first quarter, Ball’s day got off to a convincing start. In the second quarter on the drive that ended with his only touchdown, the senior tailback received the ball on four straight plays and rushed for 38 yards.
Ball admitted that a swirl of frustration and disappointment ate at him in the locker room postgame. But looking surprisingly composed as a swarm of reporters gathered around him following the defeat, he twirled a certain football emblazoned with a red Motion ‘W’ in his hands.
It was the record-tying football, a piece of history he said he still planned to hand over to his parents.
Even after the difficult loss that made it impossible for the Badgers to officially win the Leaders Division crown, he acknowledged the magnitude of the moment when he tied former Miami (OH) running back Travis Prentice’s record.
“It’s memorable,” he said. “It’s something that I’m going to look back on, cherish it for the rest of my life, so I just wanted to make sure to soak it all in.”
Follow Ian on Twitter