BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — As Wisconsin running back John Clay watched from the sidelines with a head injury, freshman running back Montee Ball proved just how valuable he can be to the Big Ten’s top rushing offense.
Considering the UW coaching staff nearly redshirted Ball early in the year, his performance truly was a remarkable one that impressed his coaches and teammates.
“He’s got a smile that lights up the room,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “Montee is the kind of kid that once you give him a little bit of sugar, he’s going to keep going and going. I really think the sky is the limit for that young man.”
The 5-foot-11 running back carried the ball eight times in the first half for 30 yards, but when Clay was unable to return due to a concussion, his workload increased significantly. He was unfazed, helping the Badgers continue to pound the ball on the ground in the second half as he finished with the best game of his young career with 27 carries for 115 yards and two touchdowns.
Ball’s performance helped Wisconsin tally a season-high 488 yards of total offense, including 294 rushing yards, which gives the Badgers their second consecutive game over 200 yards rushing and fourth overall this season.
“He stayed mentally tough,” guard John Moffitt said of Ball. “He was cool, he was calm, he was very collected, and I think that’s what you need and that’s something that he knows how to do as a freshman.”
Getting a 115-yard performance from a true freshman after your starting running back (who is also the Big Ten’s leading back) goes out with a slight concussion is the perfect example of Wisconsin’s “next man in” mantra.
Although he was involved in the first half with the Wisconsin game plan focusing on running the ball right at the Hoosier defense, when Ball moved into the leading role in the UW backfield the Badger offense didn’t miss a beat, though it did lose some big-play ability.
“John Clay is a very talented player (and) did some great things today,” wide receiver Nick Toon said. “Montee, to come in and play as a true freshman, that’s a big testament to his athletic ability and his ability to learn the offense at the college level.”
What could have made the loss of Clay worse was the addition of an injury to offensive lineman Josh Oglesby, forcing Jake Bscherer to play the remainder of the contest.
Fortunately for Wisconsin, Bscherer responded as much as Ball did, providing a seamless transition for the UW offense following the injury.
“Jake is a good example of another guy (saying) batter up,” Bielema said. “I thought Jake went in there and did a good job, obviously the numbers were there.”
“With our O-line and the guys we have here it’s expected that if a guy goes down you’re expected to go in and play just as well,” Moffitt added. “I think he really came in and rose to the occasion.”
Likewise, when asked about his performance, Ball gave all the credit to his offensive line.
Although he was never guaranteed any playing time at the beginning of the year, Ball has known his role all along: to provide a backup to Clay in case of injury or a breather. He did not play early in the season for various reasons, but since he got his first touch of the season he has improved each week.
Ball had played in four games before Saturday, but his role was very minor in comparison to the workload he was given when Clay went down.
“It’s a load to carry, but that’s what I’m here for,” Ball said. “That’s college football and you’ve got to grow up sometime.”
The Wentzville, Mo., native came of age Saturday, providing just what the Badgers needed in the game’s most crucial moments.
Ball’s biggest run of the day arguably was one of his shortest. With 2:03 remaining on the clock following an Indiana timeout, he picked up three yards to move the ball inside the IU 40-yard line. More importantly, though, Ball picked up a crucial first down that allowed UW to run out the clock over the next three plays.
Fittingly, he would carry the ball on each of them.
“Coming into this game, I knew that I was going to get a lot more carries than I did in previous weeks,” Ball said. “I just became a man today.”