Offensive Player of the Year: Montee Ball
Montee Ball jogged onto the Camp Randall field Sept. 1 as a Heisman favorite. He left as one of the most accomplished running backs in the history of Wisconsin, a program that counts Ron Dayne and Alan Ameche among its alumni.
His career ended in a fashion similar to what many expected, anchoring the Badgers’ offense with another brutally efficient 1,830-yard, 22-touchdown season. Yet, what came between Sept. 1 and a Rose Bowl loss to Stanford exactly four months later was anything but expected. Ball crawled through the early part of the season with only two 100-yard performances in his first five games. The offensive line — little more than a collapsing wall before former head coach Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson two weeks into the season — improved as the Big Ten season took hold and Ball’s season took off accordingly.
In eight of his final nine games in a Wisconsin uniform, he rushed for more than 100 yards and twice ran for 200-plus, including a career-high 247 yards in an October trouncing of Purdue. His low numbers early on proved too much for a late Heisman charge, but at year’s end he had locked up the Doak Walker Award (awarded to the nation’s top running back) and was a near-consensus First Team All-American for the second straight year. The man famously buried at No. 3 on the depth chart midway through his sophomore season effectively ingrained his name among the best players in Wisconsin history, carrying his team through a tumultuous season and back to Pasadena, Calif. along the way.
Defensive Player of the Year: Chris Borland
Is there any surprise here? Borland is single-handedly one of the most versatile linebackers in the nation. The redshirt junior middle linebacker was named First Team All-Big Ten by the conference’s coaches thanks to his 104 tackles in just 12 games and his 4.5 sacks, his best total since his Freshman of the Year campaign in 2009.
Borland also has a nose for big games. The Rose Bowl was no different, as Borland recorded nine tackles against Stanford, one of the most physical teams in the country. In the Big Ten Championship, Borland recorded 13 tackles and punched out the football to force the 13th fumble of his career, which is the top mark in the history of the Wisconsin football program and dangerously close to the NCAA record of 14. Borland also recovered or forced a fumble in five games this season.
Although plagued late in the year with a hamstring injury that cost him two games, Borland still managed to record over 100 tackles and led a Wisconsin defense that ranked in the top 25 nationally in total yards allowed per game, points allowed per game and rushing yards allowed per game.
There’s a reason so many teams in 2012 constantly ran to the outside on the Badgers. Sure, the Wisconsin defensive tackles are massive, but No. 44 was always waiting to make the play. Just ask Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez, who got pile-driven to the ground when he tried to test the middle against Borland in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Rookie of the Year: Derek Watt
After just one season of play under his belt, it might not be too far of a stretch to think fullback Derek Watt will shape a legacy of his own at Wisconsin.
The brother of former Wisconsin All-American and defensive end J.J. Watt — the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year — Derek did his older brother proud, winning the starting job outright early in the season after sharing time with Sherard Cadogan.
Watt proved his worth in the running game, serving as the primary lead blocker for Ball and a Badgers’ rushing attack that finished the season ranked 13th in the nation at 236.36 yards per game.
But it wasn’t just his run blocking that made the redshirt freshman so valuable. Watt served as an important target in the passing game, recording twelve receptions for 150 yards and emerging as one of quarterback Curt Phillips favorite targets during the last third of the season.
And the contributions don’t end there. Watt was a standout on special teams, recording 13 tackles and recovering a fumble. There’s just something about those Watt boys.
Play of the Year: Melvin Gordon, Big Ten Championship Game
Phillips took the snap at the 44-yard line two minutes into the first quarter and quickly handed it off to Melvin Gordon. Gordon faked a cut inside, planted with his right foot and bounced outside. Using his speed to avoid the grasp of Nebraska safety Daimion Stafford in the backfield, Gordon made it another 20 yards before a Cornhusker even came into view, as all an out-of-position P.J. Smith could do was get a hand on the tailback’s ankle. Gordon didn’t miss a beat. It was off to the races and, thanks to a Jared Abbrederis block, the lightning-fast tailback was not touched again on his way to the end zone for the 56-yard score.
On just Wisconsin’s fourth play from scrimmage, the table had been set for the Badgers’ shocking 70-31 rout of a Nebraska team that entered Lucas Oil Stadium as the favorite. The first of 10 touchdowns UW amassed as it claimed a second straight Big Ten title, players had only Gordon to thank for establishing a strong tone early. The redshirt freshman gained 216 yards on only nine carries, which is good for a ridiculous 24 yards per touch. He didn’t score again, but Gordon was the first to expose a Nebraska defense that spent much of the game watching another cardinal jersey gallop into the end zone for another score while sprawled on the turf.
In one play, Gordon offered the underdog and its small contingent in Indianapolis hope for another trip to the Rose Bowl.
Best Game of the Year: Big Ten Championship Game
Wisconsin came into Lucas Oil Stadium looking like a horse on its last leg. Losers of three of its last four contests and in the Leaders’ spot of the Big Ten Championship game by default, it seemed the entirety of the media and so-called were picking Nebraska to emerge victorious and head to Pasadena.
But, the Badgers had other plans, as three running backs rushed for more than 100 yards on the ground and the team steamrolled the Cornhuskers in the most dominating display of football for in the 2012 season.
Ball and Gordon each tallied over 200 yards as the Badgers’ offensive line and wide receivers paved clean rushing lanes for the ground attack, as each touchdown sent Husker players back to the sideline shaking their heads and head coach Bo Pelini shell-shocked.
It was the only time in the season Wisconsin played an entire four quarters of football from start to finish, as the team put its foot down on the gas pedal and never let up. It was a crown jewel of play calling for then-offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who finally put his doubters to rest by keeping Nebraska off-balance with trick plays and the jet-sweep, attacking the opponent’s weakness on the edge with the speed of Gordon, Ball and James White.