WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Running back Montee Ball is the first to admit he had it easy for much of last season.
Week after week, he had gaping holes to run through as just one cog in the University of Wisconsin football team’s mighty offensive machine.
After six games this season that were decidedly below his personal lofty standards, Ball came to the conclusion he had to focus on getting more yards after contact -- also known as YAC -- going into a crucial game against Purdue on Saturday.
As a result, Ball rushed 29 times for a career-high 247 yards and three touchdowns as the Badgers put themselves in the driver’s seat for a berth in the Big Ten Conference title game with a 38-14 victory on a rainy day at Ross-Ade Stadium.
The win puts UW (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) a game and a half ahead of the Boilermakers (3-3, 0-2) in the Leaders Division. Purdue was widely seen as the biggest threat to block the Badgers’ return path to Indianapolis, with both Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for postseason play.
Ball benefited from some good blocking from UW’s rapidly improving offensive line, which overcame the loss of starting left tackle Ricky Wagner to an apparent knee injury late in the second quarter. But a good portion of those yards came after absorbing a hit.
“It’s no secret last year, I was untouched a lot of times,” Ball said. “Coming into this game, I was going to tell myself not everyone is going to be blocked, so I need better YAC. That was my approach.”
It was vintage Ball, which led to an overpowering offense that finished with 645 yards, second-most in school history to the 705 the Badgers piled up against Indiana in 1999. Ball now has 72 career touchdowns, setting school and Big Ten career records. The former record-holder for both was UW’s Ron Dayne.
“You saw the Montee from last year,” tight end Brian Wozniak said. “You just saw Montee having fun for the first time.”
As much as UW coach Bret Bielema has praised Ball for keeping the faith all season through a seemingly endless supply of trials and tribulations, Saturday’s effort was the kind of game the senior standout needed for his psyche.
Ball opened his postgame remarks by telling the media, “About time. About time I woke up.”
It was an awakening for the entire offense. The running game finished with 467 yards as junior backup James White carried 16 times for 124 yards and one score, the first time UW had 200- and 100-yard rushers in the same game since Dayne (254) and current tight ends coach Eddie Faulkner (114) did it in 1997.
The Badgers did it despite losing Wagner, which caused left guard Ryan Groy to move to left tackle, where he only had five snaps in practice left week, and backup right guard Zac Matthias to left guard.
“That’s domination on the front line,” Wozniak said of the rushing total. “That’s great we finally put it all together. We’ve had bits and pieces of that all year.”
The Boilermakers helped out with poor tackling and a half-hearted — at best — effort in the second half. This game was supposed to be a referendum on coach Danny Hope’s four seasons at Purdue and many in the crowd of 46,007 at Ross-Ade Stadium voted with their feet by leaving at halftime.
“We had poor play across the line of scrimmage and poor tackling,” Hope said.
It was as complete a performance as the Badgers have put together all season. Purdue finished with a misleading 252 total yards, including 133 yards on two plays. Quarterback Caleb TerBush had all day to throw on the first offensive play of the game, when UW rushed three defenders, and Antavian Edison beat free safety Dezmen Southward for a 52-yard completion. TerBush scored on a 1-yard sneak to give Purdue a 7-0 lead.
The Boilermakers also had an 81-yard touchdown run by Akeem Hunt against UW’s No. 2 defense, with 1 minute, 39 seconds remaining. Take out the two big gainers, and Purdue managed just 119 yards on its other 57 plays.
The Boilermakers played three quarterbacks and receivers looked frustrated with several balls thrown at their feet. The Badgers also finished with a season-high five sacks, with six different players registering at least a half-sack.
“They’ve got a lot of playmakers,” UW linebacker Chris Borland said. “I’m sure those (receivers) wanted it in their hands. I don’t know if it was the weather or what. They did get a little frustrated.”
Whatever frustration Ball had been experiencing, he kept mostly to himself.
“I kept getting those questions and I kept saying, ‘He’s fine, he’s moving forward, we’re getting better,’ ” Bielema said.
Ball had several highlight-reel runs, but three stood out.
The first was an 8-yard run out of his own end zone in the first quarter, when linebacker Sean Robinson appeared to have him dead to rights behind the goal line. Ball made a quick spin move to get away and avoid the safety that would have given Purdue a 9-7 lead.
On the next play, a third-and-1 — a problem for UW’s offense all season — Ball kept his balance after getting hit near the line of scrimmage for 21 yards, one of five runs of 20-plus yards he had in the game.
Then came the haymaker, on the second offensive play of the third quarter. From the Badgers’ 33-yard-line, Ball started up the middle and cut to his left on a zone play. He froze cornerback Ricardo Allen and got just enough of a block from tight end Jacob Pedersen on defensive end Ryan Russell to cut back inside and was off to the races.
The 67-yard TD run — a career long for Ball — gave UW a 24-7 lead.
“That was a lot more on Montee than it was on me,” Pedersen said.
In addition to being one game up in the loss column on Purdue, the Badgers now also own the tiebreaker over the Boilermakers.
Just as importantly, the engine that powers UW’s offense is feeling good about himself.
“Personally, I needed this,” Ball said. “Obviously, I wasn’t doing too well. A lot of stuff wasn’t going my way. I’m really glad to see I stuck with it and overcame the adversity.”