LOS ANGELES-The 2012 college football season for senior running back Montee Ball and the Wisconsin Badgers have been one similar in ways comparable to a super-charged roller-coaster ride. Both Ball and the team have celebrated some highs and certainly have endured a few forgettable lows on their Rose Bowl journey.
Before the season had even gotten underway, Badgers’ fans and the rest of college football didn’t know if Ball would be the same high-impact rusher he had become after five men assaulted him in an unprovoked attack on the school’s campus.
The 2011 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy finalist after recording 33 touchdowns on the ground and rushing for 1.923 yards, Ball sustained a concussion and some facial injuries from the random attack. While he has been steady and spectacular at times this season, racking up 1,730 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns, the explosives plays didn’t come as regularly as Ball and the Badgers would have liked.
Named the 2012 Doak Walker Award winner, given annually to college football’s best running back, Ball played good enough to lead Wisconsin to its third consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl in three years. Wisconsin (8-5) squares off against Stanford (11-2) in the 99th Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, the school’s fifth appearance since 1998. And the Badgers can thank the perseverance and tenacity of Ball, the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader, for leading the way.
“It was a lot of adversity for me, and it kind of set me back during the season,” Ball said during the team’s Rose Bowl Media Day at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Los Angeles. “I believed what it showed me is that you’re always going to face adversity, you just have to make sure you fight through it, and that kind of helped me to fight through all of the losses at the end, and it kind of showed me to keep fighting and make sure I spread it out to the team.”
Last year, Ball and quarterback Russell Wilson, now calling plays for the Seattle Seahawks, marched Wisconsin into the Rose Bowl against the high-octane offense of Oregon, where the Badgers lost 45-38. Ball, the NCAA’s all-time leader (82) in touchdowns scored, rushed for 164 yards a touchdown in the defeat. With Wilson making the transition to the NFL, Ball knew coming into this season that high expectations and the media’s glaring spotlight would solely be on him.
Ball’s blockbuster 2011 season guaranteed that he would be chosen to solidify Wisconsin’s chances as a legitimate Big Ten championship contender and the one player that could lead the team to a BCS bowl berth. Ball and his teammates accomplished what they set out to do. Wisconsin laid claim to the Big Ten title by whipping Nebraska 70-21 in the championship game to get to the Rose Bowl.
But the road to Pasadena hasn’t been easy for Ball or the Badgers. Beginning with the unfortunate incident involving Ball, to the team’s unexpected losing slide towards the end of the season, to the departure of head coach Bret Bielema, the Badgers have had a lot to overcome.
Wisconsin lost three of its last four regular season games before beating Nebraska to earn their third straight trip to the Rose Bowl. Then the announcement came that Bielema, who was 68-24 during his head coaching tenure at Wisconsin, would be leaving to take the same position at the University of Arkansas. But through it all, Ball and the rest of the Wisconsin football team have displayed great resiliency.
Ball summed up the team’s up and down season with an exclamation point.
“Tough,” Ball said. “It hasn’t been the ideal way, the ideal season to have. But I’m glad to see that we finished it out right, make sure we showed everybody in the nation that we deserved to be in the Big Ten championship game and deserved to be in the Rose Bowl.”
The first two trips for Ball and his teammates have resulted in disappointing finishes. The consensus All-American is hopeful that third time around will be the charm for the Badgers. Ball, only 150 yards shy of tying the Rose Bowl career mark of 446 yards, set by Rose Bowl Hall of Fame inductee and Wisconsin alum Ron Dayne, said he is grateful to have another opportunity to play on New Year’s Day.
“It feels good,” said Ball. “It’s the third time, but we’re not going to take this for granted.”