By TOM LEA
MADISON – When NFL scouts come through the Wisconsin football facilities in search of sharing conversation with head coach Bret Bielema, they usually have nothing but high marks regarding senior tailback Montee Ball.
“I’ve had several guys comment to me this year that they thought he’s the first back to go in this year’s draft,” Bielema said. “Many make the statement without a doubt.”
Ball, just one touchdown away from tying the all-time career touchdown record, returned for his senior year after leading the nation in rushing (1,923) and total touchdowns (39).
He also finished fourth in Heisman voting.
The decision to return for his senior year was somewhat surprising, but Ball, at that time, said he might not be ready to leave the college game and he wasn’t exactly thrilled with his third round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee.
Now, with 1,226 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns, it seems as though Ball made the right decision to return for his final year in Madison. Scouts, at least according to Bielema, tend to agree.
“I thought Saturday I saw some of those runs,” Bielema, discussing Ball’s 198-yard rushing performance at Indiana, said. “But I didn’t get as good a view as I did on film. He even had to club a referee on one occasion to get where he needed to be. He pulled that foot out of a tackle. He was just angry. He was out of his mind. It was unbelievable.
“Again, there are a lot of good players around him, but I think Montee is going to be very, very happy on draft day.”
NO THOUGHTS OF LIMITING PLAYERS:
Even though many will look at Wisconsin’s game against Ohio State and render it meaningless, mostly because the Buckeyes aren’t eligible for postseason play due to NCAA violations, the game means plenty for the Badgers.
When asked whether he would rest his players at any point over the final two weeks of the season, Bielema proved his point.
“This game? No,” he said. “We’re in a race that we’re trying to win the Leaders Division crown. Ohio State is at the top of the list. We’re in a race to finish at the top of our division and this opportunity this week is a chance to play the team that’s at that number one spot.
“So I think I might have a mutiny on my hands if I tried to pull anybody out of this game this Saturday.”
It’s hard for Bret Bielema to analyze whether the Wisconsin-Ohio State rivalry has reached a new level with the arrival of Urban Meyer simply because that chapter has yet to be written.
Wisconsin hasn’t played the Buckeyes since Meyer took over as the head coach, so though the fans and people interested in this game would like to make a lot of several off field incidents, namely Bielema’s ‘illegal’ recruiting comment regarding Meyer, the Badgers head coach wasn’t willing to declare the rivalry as one reaching new heights.
“There’s a lot written in the offseason,” Bielema said. “The unfortunate part about that is there’s a lot to do about nothing. I only met Urban a couple of times before his induction into the league. One was a really enjoyable experience when he came here as an analyst. Really enjoyed sitting down with him and hopefully he did as well.
“So the part (overblown) is unfortunate.”
Bielema did say the realm of the rivalry that has become more heated is rooted in recruiting. Since Wisconsin heavily recruits the state (wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni is UW’s primary recruiter in that state) it’s become quite a competitive environment.
“The kids know each other,” Bielema said. “That builds up a little bit of animosity and some feelings out there more than anything. I’ve learned early on in my coaching career that you lose more friends in recruiting in the coaching world than you do on game days. I think Saturday’s, you just kind of play, shake hands afterwards and move on.
“Recruiting, you wear that on your sleeve. That’s something that’s the life line of your program and a lot of times that’s where feelings get very emotional.”
Wisconsin’s best collective rushing effort in school history led to multiple offensive game MVPs for the Badgers.
Junior center Travis Frederick, junior left guard Ryan Groy, senior running back Montee Ball, junior running back James White and senior quarterback Curt Phillips were named offensive MVPs for their respective performances at Indiana.
“Those guys all played very, very well,” Bielema said.
Defensively, Bielema and his staff gave Beau Allen, Ethan Armstrong and Devin Smith distinction. Kyle French and Kenzel Doe, meanwhile, earned it on special teams.
“French drove the ball into the wind and had a 4.2-plus hang time,” Bielema said. “Kenzel Doe, he came in as a wide receiver and didn’t catch all the balls statistically he thought he might be catching. He downed the ball on the one-yard line. He’s a terror on kickoff coverage.
“He’s doing a lot of really big things.”
Offensive scout MVP: Alex Walker
Defensive scout MVP: Jake Rademacher
Bielema on whether he’d have an issue with people referring to an undefeated OSU as national champions if that were to happen?
“I haven’t given that any thought. You know, as coaches, we all vote in the USA Today coaches poll. That’s the only poll I’m involved in and that obviously prohibits us from ranking teams that are not eligible for bowl competition. So I really haven’t given it much thought.”
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