By Jim Weber
The sluggish start to the 2012 season for Wisconsin senior RB Monteé Ball has been one of the most surprising parts of the college football season thus far.
Since being thrust into a starting role in November of 2010, no offensive player in the country had been more consistent than the bruising Badgers back. Entering this season, he had scored a touchdown in 20 straight games (the streak was broken in Week 2 vs. Oregon State). Last fall, he rushed for nearly 2,000 yards, averaged 6.3 YPC and tied Barry Sanders’ single-season touchdown mark (39).
But so far this season, Ball’s play has fallen off a cliff faster than Tennessee Titans RB Chris Johnson. Through four games, Ball is averaging 3.9 yards per rush against very average nonconference competition and now has a head injury to deal with after Saturday’s game vs. UTEP.
Yes, Ball lost three starters on the offensive line, watched his old offensive coordinator and O-line coach leave for Pitt in the offseason and had to recover from being assaulted in Madison last month. And it wasn’t his fault he had nowhere to run on Sept. 8 against Oregon State, when he finished with just 61 yards on the ground due to a swarming Beavers defense.
But Ball averaged just 3.8 yards per carry against both Northern Iowa and Utah State in Weeks 1 and 3. Last Saturday, Ball rushed for 44 yards on nine carries before suffering a head injury, but even that performance wasn’t very strong. Aside from one 22-yard gain, Ball averaged just 2.3 YPC and lost the first fumble of his career.
In Ball’s absence, redshirt freshman RB Melvin Gordon looked like the old Monteé Ball while rushing for 112 yards on eight carries and consistently gashing the UTEP defense for big gains.
With Ball’s status up in the air for Saturday’s game for Nebraska and Gordon and RB James White waiting in the wings, it’s fair to wonder: Will Monteé Ball ever regain his old form? After all, we’ve already seen no fewer than two bruising Badger running backs hit the ground running in Madison only to end their careers running on empty.
First, there was P.J. Hill (below, far left). He rushed for nearly 1,600 yards and 15 TDs in 2006 but wasn’t very effective in the second half of the ’07 season while struggling with injuries. Hill declared early for the NFL draft that offseason but went unpicked.
Then there was John Clay (center), who rumbled for 1,517 yards and 18 TDs as a sophomore in ’09. With even bigger expectations for 2010, Clay got nicked up like Hill and faded to the background while Ball started his rampage on Big Ten defenses. Like Hill, Clay went pro early only to go undrafted.
And that brings us to Ball (right).
After an awesome second half of his sophomore season, he slimmed down before last fall to combine the strength he displayed in 2010 with more quickness to turn the corner and pull away from defenders. The result was one of the greatest running back seasons not to win the Heisman Trophy. Ball would have likely been a second round pick in last April’s NFL draft but decided to return to school instead.
With Wisconsin’s nonconference schedule of FCS Northern Iowa, Oregon State, Utah State and UTEP, it was just expected that Ball would trample the inferior competition with 200-yard games and routine trips to the end zone. Instead, Ball has a total of 360 yards and three touchdowns so far (granted, he left the UTEP contest in the second quarter) and his rushing average is down nearly 2.5 yards per carry from last year (6.4).
What’s even more concerning is the way Gordon ripped through the UTEP defense like everyone expected Ball to do, making it even clearer Ball isn’t the same back he was last season. All of it makes me wonder if Ball’s career in Madison will end quietly like Hill and Clay before him. After all, Gordon and James White have both proven they are more than capable running backs in the event Ball is injured or just not playing well. And if Gordon goes off against Nebraska, Ball might soon be splitting carries three ways.
I don’t know the reason Ball has fallen off a cliff so fast. Maybe he’s still getting up to speed after the time he took off to recover from the assault in August. Maybe the number of carries he’s had in Wisconsin’s offense is starting to take its toll on him. Maybe head coach Bret Bielema made a big mistake by not allowing anyone to tackle Ball all offseason – including a DNP in the spring game – to avoid the risk of injury.
Maybe Ball, who by all accounts is a very charming young man, just didn’t put in the same work this past offseason that he did in 2011. Or maybe the switch from pronouncing his name “Mon-TEE” to “Mon-TAY” in July has completely thrown off his mojo (I kid, I kid).
It’s up to Ball and Bielema to figure out the problem and a solution soon – stat.
Because after looking like a second round NFL draft pick just nine months ago, Ball is on pace to join Hill and Clay as one-time great Wisconsin running backs that fizzle out of college and don’t hear their names called at all during the NFL draft.