Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Hughes: Moderation needed in Ball’s workload

There’s no doubt in anyone’s head who the go-to man for the Wisconsin football team is. No Badger fan would particularly want to daydream about what this UW team might be like without Montee Ball.

But running back is a funny position. When a team’s – or, more specifically, an offense’s – go-to man is a quarterback, wide receiver or tight end, the objective is always to give that player the ball as many times as possible so he can be a playmaker as often as possible. The idea of “moderation” rarely applies to them.

And that’s where those skill positions differ from running backs, who are routinely described as workhorses for a few good reasons. They’re counted on to punch through the trenches and to cruise in fifth-gear on every play despite the beating they take.


They need doses of moderation.

Last Saturday, Ball took the feed 32 times in a season opener against an FCS school, in what is hoped to be a 14-game season. That’s folly.

Sure, that game became disturbingly close out of nowhere in the fourth quarter. And sure, it’d be harder to explain a loss to Northern Iowa than Nebraska or Michigan State to those who wield a vote in the national rankings.

But when Ball is earning 3.8 yards per carry and the sure-as-hell capable James White is averaging 5.2 (and getting only nine cracks at the ball), Ball doesn’t need 32 carries. Not in the season opener. Not against an FCS school.

Only one game has passed, so the message is only cautionary at this point: Just don’t be afraid to give White the ball (or even the yet-to-be-revealed, star-of-tomorrow Melvin Gordon, an able-bodied redshirt freshman).

It would probably be easy for UW to overcommit on Ball. The offense features a sizable amount of new personnel and debuting with 26 points versus a lower-echelon school only keeps the question marks hanging around. And, after all, Ball’s already been named a Heisman finalist once in his career, it would be tough not to instinctively give a guy like that the rock when the game’s still in reach (be it by 19 points or five).

But you know what? Ball didn’t produce a Heisman Trophy-worthy season by taking 32 carries a game. He did it with 21.9 on average.

There are probably two reasons – other than Ball’s own athleticism – that allowed him to be so damn efficient. One is the passing game was nearly as good, which prevented defenses from a narrow focus on Ball.

Another is that his relatively low amount of carries probably didn’t wear on him all that much down the stretch, which is when he was at his best. He gained 1,070 of his 1,923 yards in the final six games and never averaged fewer than 5.1 yards per carry.

Ball didn’t see any contact drills between January’s Rose Bowl and Saturday’s season opener, so it’s understandable if he was a little rusty. But simply put, White moved the ball more efficiently – and did it with verve. When that happens, Matt Canada and Bret Bielema need to spare Ball a handful of carries if they want to keep him fresh and running like an All-American or Heisman type of player again.

It’s better both in the long run and short run.

Take Alabama, for example, who had a stacked backfield with Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson in 2009. Ingram had 271 carries that year, never taking more than 28 a game (he averaged 19.3), and won the Heisman. Alabama won five contests by 14 points or less that year and still never poured the weight of the game on its go-to man.

Meanwhile, Richardson was there to take 145 carries off Ingram’s hands and was productive while he did it.

Ingram finished that year stronger than how he began it, which makes me wonder how that Heisman hype for Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell will go if he keeps taking 50 handoffs a game.

So if Ball gets 32 carries against an FCS school flirting with a win, does that mean Ball will get closer to 40 if Ohio State, Michigan State or Nebraska start acting out? There are just more creative ways to answer a challenge like the one given Saturday, especially when dealing with someone who’s going to take a couple hundred hits as the season wears on.

If Wisconsin wants or needs to run more than it did last year, or if Ball isn’t behaving like a superhero Harry Houdini in a given game, then it should be White who gets first dibs on the extra carries.

That way, Ball can still be rolling in November, December – and perhaps even on January 1, again.

Elliot is a fifth-year senior majoring in journalism and philosophy. What are the chances UW will wear out Ball? How many carries should White get? Let him know via Twitter (@elliothughes12) or email ([email protected]).

Leave a Comment
Donate to The Badger Herald

Your donation will support the student journalists of University of Wisconsin-Madison. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
Donate to The Badger Herald

Comments (0)

All The Badger Herald Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *