Head coach Bret Bielema did not offer a decisive answer to that question at his press conference Monday and said Ball’s status for the Badgers’ first trip to Lincoln, Neb., since 1973 is still uncertain after he suffered concussion-like symptoms early in the second quarter against the Miners. However, Bielema seemed confident Ball will be able to recover in time.
“Montee will get evaluated, has the possibility of practicing on Tuesday,” Bielema said. “We’ll see where that goes. Obviously if not, we’ll take it as the week moves forward. I know he’s very encouraging about where it’s at.”
The offense put up a season-high 37 points Saturday behind quarterback Joel Stave in his first career start. Although Wisconsin sputtered at times, it was able to move the ball efficiently down the field.
Stave completed 12 of 17 passes for 210 yards with one touchdown and an interception. But he will be tackling a much more daunting beast this weekend playing in his first road game in front of a raucous Memorial Stadium crowd.
“I purposefully, after a series or during a series, kind of (stood) off to the side and watched Danny O’Brien and Curt Phillips handle Joel,” Bielema said. “I couldn’t be prouder of those two guys, they were doing everything they could to make the game better for Joel.”
In Ball’s absence, the running attack managed to develop a steady rhythm behind redshirt freshman running back Melvin Gordon and junior running back James White. Gordon ran the ball eight times for a career-high 112 yards and a touchdown and ranks third in the nation with 13 yards per carry.
If the Badgers are without their preseason Heisman candidate, Bielema made it clear he is comfortable using White and Gordon as his primary options on the ground.
“Melvin’s a guy that has shown that he can play at this level,” he said. “He’s very smooth in the way he runs, just got to continue to be very guarded about how you’re using him. There was some things he didn’t specifically do mentally-wise that we’ve got to make sure he’s locked into.”
Chris Borland was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Monday after recording 12 tackles, 3.5 of them for a loss, two sacks and a pair of pass breakups against the Miners. Bielema said the middle linebacker also shared team defensive MVP honors for the victory with defensive tackle Ethan Hemer.
The Wisconsin defense allowed just 77 rushing yards in its final non-conference game and is allowing an average of just over 80 yards per game, good for 13th nationally. Defensive ends David Gilbert, Brendan Kelly and Tyler Dippel are all expected back in practice this week according to Bielema, helping a patchwork defensive line regain stability against the Cornhuskers.
At 3-1, No. 22 Nebraska presents a new set of challenges on the offensive end led by dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez. Though Martinez threw three interceptions in Wisconsin’s 48-17 drubbing of Nebraska at Camp Randall in 2011, he has shown major growth this season and has just one interception through four games.
“If you’re going to grade Martinez on how he’s different, he’s really done a nice job of throwing the ball down the field vertically,” Bielema said.
“If he’s got an open hole, he can beat any (defensive back) we got and any linebacker, so that’s a tremendous challenge for us. I think that’s just amplified because of what he’s been able to do on the play-action passes off of it.”
Wisconsin must try to slow an explosive Nebraska offensive that outscored Idaho State by 66 points last weekend and is averaging 541 yards of total offense.
But after a rocky nonconference season, Bielema challenged his players to rise to the occasion this week as they head into conference play.
“I think the challenge for our guys is, where do you want to be?,” he said. “You’ve done a good job of battling yourself back, you’re a 3-1 team, you’re entering conference play where everybody’s 0-0. It’s your opportunity to see exactly where we want to go and how far you’ve come in the past two weeks.”