Here’s a good way to win a bar bet.
Ask somebody if University of Wisconsin running back Montee Ball has more yards at this point of the season than he did a year ago at this time.
After seven games of what up until now the outside world has judged as a largely disappointing senior season, Ball has 172 carries for 816 yards (4.7 average) with 11 rushing touchdowns.
After seven games in 2011, when Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist, he had 125 carries for 768 yards (6.1 average) with 17 rushing touchdowns.
The answer to that question surprised both Ball and UW running backs coach Thomas Hammock.
“Yeah, it’s very surprising,” Ball said after practice on Tuesday night. “A great feeling. ... I believe right now I still have more room for improvement. I want to make sure I do.”
Hammock didn’t know the correct answer, either, though he can be forgiven since he pays scant attention to rushing statistics.
“Obviously, he’s getting better,” Hammock said. “People wanted to write him off early in the season. Now, he’s taken a step and continued to move forward.”
Ball’s statistics look a lot better after he rushed for a career-high 247 yards and three touchdowns last week in the 38-14 win at Purdue.
But that big game, which came in the seventh week, was as predictable as the changing of the seasons: When the leaves turn, so does Ball.
His numbers in the first half of the regular season have never been strong. Discounting Ball’s freshman year in 2009 when he played sparingly, he has averaged 16.4 carries, 79.1 rushing yards, 4.8 yards per carry and 1.5 rushing touchdowns per game in the first six games in his career.
After the first six games, he has averaged 23.1 carries, 154.1 rushing yards, 6.7 yards per carry and 2.3 rushing touchdowns.
“I remind him all of the time,” Hammock said. “Those first five games last year, I wasn’t overly excited about them. Up until the second half of Nebraska (fifth game), that’s when I started seeing the rhythm. If you look at the time of the schedule (this year), it’s about the same.”
The reasons for Ball’s emergence in the second half of the season are a little harder to pin down than when the change is made.
“He’s a rhythm runner,” Hammock said. “He’s starting to find his rhythm. We’ve got to keep working on that, keep working hard every day.”
Ball smiled when Hammock’s words were passed along to him.
“Sometimes he knows me better than I know myself out on the field,” Ball said. “That’s something I need to work on. I take quite some time to get a rhythm. I need to start right off the first snap.”
Ball’s rhythm was understandably out of whack going into the season after he was limited in preseason camp due to a concussion.
There were other factors beyond his control as well, including three new starters in the offensive line, a new fullback and a different blocking tight end. Toss in the turmoil created in the line when offensive line coach Mike Markuson was fired after two games and replaced by graduate assistant Bart Miller and it’s no wonder Ball was out of sync.
Despite the changes around him, Ball accepts his share of responsibility for his production in the first six games.
“I most definitely wasn’t playing my best football at the beginning of the season,” he said. “It finally started to click with me.
“I think I just started trusting everything, just trusting the system I’ve always had. Not being able to practice in fall camp, I was kind of off.”
Ball said the way he trains contributes to the strong way he finishes seasons. The Badgers also tend to lean on him more, based on his increased carries as the season goes along.
“It just goes back to how I’ve always been brought up, just my work ethic, which is start strong and finish stronger,” he said.
Ball might even find a way to get back into the Heisman race for which he was pretty much written off after his slow start. The seventh game last year was the loss to Michigan State and nobody was talking about Ball as a Heisman contender then.
“I’m not going to sit here and say no,” he said of rejoining the Heisman conversation. “I hope I get back in it.”
Perhaps the most important thing for Ball is he finally has his swagger back. That means the offense does, too, since he is such an integral part of what makes it go.
“Yeah, that’s what I missed the first half of the season, the swagger, the confidence,” he said. “The swagger in a great way, in a confident, not cocky, way.
“I believe that’s what every team needs. For us at Wisconsin, that’s what we needed last game.”