A Heisman finalist a year ago after rushing for a NCAA record-tying 39 touchdowns, Ball is the nation's active rushing leader with 4,536 yards and will take the field for the last time Saturday with an opportunity to tie the NCAA's all-time touchdown list at 78.
"It's kind of mind boggling, as many great players have played in the history of college football," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said Monday. "One thing that jumps out to me … he hasn't been the guy for four years. He's really been the guy for 2 1/2, which makes it all the more remarkable."
It has the potential to allow the story to come full circle, as Ball has a chance to break that record this week against the foe – sixth-ranked Ohio State - that he didn't even see the field against two years ago.
The thought of breaking any rushing records, let alone being a running back, was in the forefront of Ball's mind. He quietly thought about transferring. He thought about switching positions and playing linebacker. That doubt started to creep in again this September when he wondered if he would be able to reach a record set by Travis Prentice in 1999. Ball scored only three times through the team's four nonconference games, a casualty of Wisconsin's issues on its offensive line and inconsistencies at the quarterback position. When he finally found some rhythm against UTEP in the nonconference finale, he was knocked out of the game early in the second quarter with a concussion.
"I'm really glad I stuck with it and kept fighting and kept pushing and kept working hard with my teammates in practice," said Ball. "And now that I'm close to getting it, it seems possible." It's possible because of the work Ball has done in conference play. Helping the Badgers clinch a second straight trip to Indianapolis, Ball has averaged 144.7 and scored 13 touchdowns in league player. Against Indiana, Ball rushed for 198 yards – his fourth straight 100-plus-yard game against the Hoosiers – and three touchdowns to put him on the brink.
"I'm very aware of it," said Ball, with a smile. "Mainly what I'm focusing on is I talk to coach (Thomas) Hammock about it every day, and he makes sure to tell me that try not to think about it, keep doing what you're doing and it will unfold. "It will happen is basically what he tells me. It's really easy to not think about it a lot because I still have to go out there and perform with my teammates. I'm a really humble player, so I try not to talk about it much."
Ball said he's an unselfish player, which he proved by sticking with the Badgers, even though he may have liked to switch to linebacker because he was the "forgotten guy." Ball wanted to contribute on the field, no matter the position, and felt his future wasn't at a ball carrier when he only had five carries in a three-week stretch, culminating with his zero against the Buckeyes.
"I always give him a little bit of heat," said Bielema. "If he came in and told me he wanted to switch to linebacker, I probably wouldn't have let him as bad as he might have pleaded. I think we always knew all along he was going to be pretty special."
Just like Oregon's players made it a mission to not let Ball set the signal season touchdown record against him in last year's Rose Bowl, Ohio State is taking a similar approach this weekend. The Buckeyes are ranked 16th in the FBS and second against the run, allowing 107.9 yards per game to opposing running backs, and have given up 11 touchdowns through 10 games this season.
"I know for a fact that Urban (Meyer) is a very competitive guy," Ball said. "I know for a fact that's what he's telling them. And that's going to create a great game, I think, for our fans."
If and when he does get the record, it will be something for the Wisconsin team to cherish. "It will be a special memory for everybody involved," Bielema said. "Going back to the beginning of the season, we've made reference to Montee's going to be a Heisman trophy candidate. He's a guy that's going to get these awards. But you can be a center that's blocking for him."
The next stop for Ball will presumably be the NFL. Ball passed up going pro last season so he could finish off his illustrious career. That time was not wasted. Ball used the last two years to lose weight and work on his pass protection and breaking tackles. All of those goals should help improve his draft stock come May.
"I think right now what I've shown everybody is that I'm capable of making defenders miss, and the YAC, yards after contact, which was huge for me," Ball said. "As of right now, I haven't heard anything back from anybody. Right now I'm just going to keep playing."