Wisconsin Football: How Montee Ball Can Return to Heisman Trophy Race
The Wisconsin Badgers were coming off of a hard-fought loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a game where Wisconsin led by as many as 17 points in the second half.
The Badgers were 3-2, 0-1 in the Big Ten, and already a disappointment in the eyes of its entire fan base. Montee Ball was averaging only 3.65 yards a carry following a record-breaking 2011 season.
Wisconsin was going nowhere fast. How were the Badgers—and Montee Ball—going to steer the ship in the right direction?
The Tuesday following the loss, head coach Bret Bielema addressed the media and made yet another season-changing decision, the first being the firing of offensive line coach Mike Markuson.
Bielema explained how, moving forward, the Badgers would give backup running backs James White and Melvin Gordon more touches instead of solely relying on Ball in the ground game (via Madison.com).
How would limiting the amount of times Ball runs in a game have a positive impact not only on the Badgers, but on Ball's performance?
For one, it keeps Ball fresh throughout the game's entirety while giving the immensely talented White and Gordon more chances to impact the game.
The result: two lopsided victories over Illinois and Purdue, likely vaulting the Badgers into the BIG Championship Game despite entering just the fourth week of Big Ten play.
Not only has Wisconsin won its past two games against Leaders Division opponents, but it has won those games by a combined 41 points, bouncing back nicely from what could have been a devastating loss to Nebraska.
Meanwhile, Montee Ball has completely turned his season around, totaling 363 rushing yards in the past two games, including a 247-yard effort against Purdue that garnered him the Maxwell Award Player of the Week.
Ball's limited carries have in turn led to back-to-back victories, and it's no coincidence.
By averaging 7.56 yards-per-carry during that two game stretch, Ball improved his season rushing average to 4.7 yards a rush and his season total to 816 yards to go along with his 11 touchdowns.
Through seven games in 2011, Ball had (just) 768 yards, although he also had 17 touchdowns and averaged 6.1 yards-per-carry.
However, if you take a look at Ball's game log last season, you'll notice that the Heisman finalist only topped 25 carries three times all season. In 2012, he has already rushed over 25 times on four different occasions, including three games with over 30 rushes.
It's possible that Ball's concussion prior to the start of the season played a factor in his slow start as well as some poor blocking from the offensive line, but he was also being heavily relied on, unnecessary considering the talent behind Ball on the roster.
Will Montee Ball become a Heisman Trophy finalist this season?
With Ball's YPC rising rapidly and touchdown total at a respectable number, Ball is once again on track to find himself in the Heisman race by the end of the season if he can keep up his recent pace.
But there's one other factor: team success.
Rarely does a Heisman Trophy winner—or even finalist—come from a team with a poor record or a non-power six conference. With Wisconsin already in the hole, it will have to continue stringing together victories to draw more attention to its football team as well as Ball.
Can the Badgers do it? For the foreseeable future, but games at home against Ohio State and on the road against Penn State to close out the regular season appear to be the most daunting games left on the slate.
Should Ball and the Badgers translate their last two games to the second half of the season, it's conceivable that Ball could return to New York—and that Wisconsin could return to Pasadena.
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