Sunday Morning Quarterback: Montee Ball keeps chin up, with assist from Barry Sanders

2012-09-23T11:45:00Z 2012-09-24T11:35:34Z Sunday Morning Quarterback: Montee Ball keeps chin up, with assist from Barry SandersADAM MERTZ | Wisconsin State Journal | adam.mertz@madison.com | 608-252-6474 madison.com

To say things haven't gone exactly as planned for Montee Ball is a mighty understatement.

The University of Wisconsin tailback's string of bad fortune continued Saturday with his first career lost fumble -- ending an amazing string of 710 touches without one -- and an apparent concussion when Texas-El Paso linebacker Jamie Irving met him in the hole like a freight train as he crossed the goal line for a score that moved him past names like Ron Dayne, Tim Tebow and Marshall Faulk on the NCAA's all-time charts.

For those keeping score at home, that would be Ball's second concussion in seven weeks, including the one he suffered when he was jumped by several men Aug. 1 on campus, an assault for which three were charged with substantial battery last week.

Medical personnel gave him just a cursory once-over after Saturday's hit before benching him for the game. Even though he remained engaged on the sidelines throughout and tweeted later that he was OK, his availability for this week's Big Ten Conference opener at Nebraska would seem to be in doubt, given the growing concern over the lasting effects of successive concussions.

Forced this season to carry a beleaguered offense that graduated several of its key elements, was suddenly unable to run-block for the first time in more than two decades, spent six quarters without its lone proven threat at receiver and has already spit up a veteran transfer quarterback after three starts, Ball has managed just 378 yards on 93 carries (3.8 average) with three touchdowns.

To his credit, though, Ball seems unbowed. He sent out an optimistic Twitter message Saturday evening, explaining that he's OK and complimenting backups James White and Melvin Gordon for their performance in a 37-26 victory over UTEP, and then received a pick-me-up from an old Twitter friend Saturday night.

That would be Barry Sanders, who first got in touch with Ball last season as he was challenging Sanders' NCAA single-season touchdown record, which he eventually tied at 39.

"Hope you are OK after that hit today," Sanders wrote.

"I appreciate that mr. Sanders," Ball responded. "I am fine and really looking forward to getting back out there with my team!"

To which Sanders replied: "Good to hear... And please call me Barry."

This Fall Won't Belong to Ball in the way the preseason media machine suggested, but there's plenty of time left to turn things around.

For what it's worth, one of Ball's fellow captains scoffed after Saturday's game at the idea that he'd need any cheering up.

"There's no pity needed for Montee," linebacker Chris Borland said. "He's working hard, and he's the same guy every day. He doesn't look down on himself and nobody else does. He's not having the year he had last year up to this point, but he's a great player and he's going to have a great year this year."

Stave stays on target

As if you needed a reminder of Jared Abbrederis' value to the offense, look no further than the eight times he was targeted by first-time starter Joel Stave in his first game back after a concussion -- quadruple the number of tosses anyone else received.

Here's the breakdown by receiver, with the number of completions in parentheses. Note that his interception was intended for Jordan Fredrick.

Jared Abbrederis 8 (6)

Jordan Fredrick 3 (1)

Jacob Pedersen 2 (2)

James White 1 (1)

Brian Wozniak 1 (1)

Kenzel Doe 1 (1)

Chase Hammond 1 (0)

Survey says ...

Participants in our fan poll evidently were on the same page as Badgers coach Bret Bielema when it came to choosing a starting quarterback this week, although their No. 2 choice was also interesting.

Whom should the Badgers start at quarterback?

514: Joel Stave

459: Curt Phillips

396: Danny O'Brien

This week's poll

Will the Badgers win at Nebraska?

Yes, UW is starting to put together all the pieces

No, the Cornhuskers are the superior team

Yes, Nebraska's not as good as people think

No, home field and the payback factor are too formidable

By the numbers

1: time in program history that a blocked extra point has been returned for a 2-point conversion, on Devin Smith's return following UTEP's first touchdown. The NCAA first allowed blocked PATs to be returned in the 1988 season.

2: points by freshman kicker Jack Russell, the first of his career, in relief of Kyle French. Even though he missed a 33-yard field goal from the left hashmark badly on the first play of the fourth quarter, the former Waunakee athlete and soccer convert appears to have won the job for now.

3: Number of tackles for loss by Chris Borland in the first half alone, although his aggressive play also yielded a roughing the passer penalty.

3: fourth-down conversions by UTEP in as many attempts, including two straight on a third-quarter touchdown drive that brought them within 23-16.

8: quarters in which the Badgers have been outscored this season -- as many as all of last year combined.

35: points scored by Nebraska in the first quarter Saturday in a 73-7 victory over Idaho State, three off the school record.

151: games between starts by a freshman quarterback at Wisconsin, dating to Jim Sorgi on Oct. 21, 2000 against Purdue.

321: consecutive sellouts at Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, a streak that dates to 1960

How foes fared

Sept. 1, vs. Northern Iowa (1-3; Badgers 26, Panthers 21): UNI's 11-game winning streak against Youngstown State ended Saturday with a 42-35 road defeat.

Sept. 8, at Oregon State (2-0; Beavers 10, Badgers 7): The Beavers registered back-to-back victories over Top 20 teams for the first time since 2000, beating No. 19 UCLA 27-17 in the Rose Bowl two weeks after knocking off then-No. 13 Wisconsin.

Sept. 15, vs. Utah State (3-1; Badgers 16, Aggies 14): The Aggies overcame three turnovers on the road for a 31-19 victory at Colorado State.

Sept. 22, vs. Texas-El Paso (1-3; Badgers 37, Miners 26).

Sept. 29, at Nebraska, 7 p.m. on ABC (3-1). Workhorse running back Rex Burkhead's return from a knee injury sparked an offensive explosion that handed FCS member Idaho State its 34th straight road defeat. In the two games since the defense was humbled at UCLA, 6-foot-2, 250-pound linebacker Eric Martin has been turned loose. He had five TFLs against the Bengals. 

Oct. 6, vs. Illinois, 2:30 p.m. on ABC (2-2). Just when the Big Ten thought its national perception couldn't get any worse, the Illini got splattered 52-24 at home by Louisiana Tech. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was majorly rusty in his return from a sprained ankle and got yanked, and the Illini committed five turnovers against a high-scoring foe from the WAC.

Oct. 13, at Purdue, 11 a.m. (3-1). The Boilermakers had a bye this weekend before hosting Marshall.  

Oct. 20, vs. Minnesota, TBD (4-0). Max Shortell delivered in his first start at quarterback, and the Gophers' defense held high-powered Syracuse without a touchdown until the final minute of a 17-10 victory at rockin' and rollickin' TCF Bank Stadium.

Oct. 27, vs. Michigan State, 2;30 p.m. on ABC (3-1). Just like the Badgers a week ago, the Spartans held boos from their fans at halftime, as they trailed Eastern Michigan 7-3. They recovered in time for a 23-7 victory, secured with a late touchdown by Le'Veon Bell, who carried 36 times for a career-high 253 yards.

Nov. 3, bye

Nov. 10, at Indiana, TBD (2-1). Bye.

Nov. 17, vs. Ohio State, TBD (4-0). If the Buckeyes are the cream of the crop in the Big Ten, that's even more reason for the league to be concerned. Ohio State looked lifeless for long stretches of a 29-15 victory over Alabama-Birmingham, erasing a 9-0 lead and pulling away only after the 0-3 Blazers had pulled within 21-15 in the fourth quarter.

Nov. 24, at Penn State, TBD (2-2). Matt McGloin threw for a career-high 318 yards and a touchdown as the Nittany Lions downed visiting Temple.

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