The Running Rebel

After shredding the Rebels' run defense a season ago, No.11 Wisconsin went right back to the running game in the season opener. Utilizing the new-and-improved Montee Ball and getting solid performances from RB James White and QB Russell Wilson, the Badgers' cruise in the season opener with a 51-17 victory.

MADISON - From the time he made the decision to come to Wisconsin over the defending national champion, all the talk and all the publicity seemed to center around senior quarterback Russell Wilson. His numbers warranted the talk, as Wilson was trending worldwide on Twitter 30 minutes even before the Badgers took the field for Thursday's primetime kickoff.

As a result, guys like junior running back Montee Ball got lost in the shuffle. Over the summer, Ball had transformed his body, dropping upwards of 25 pounds since the end of last season, and improved the mental aspect of his game, but it seemed all people in Madison wanted to talk about was Wilson.

Wilson may have come as advertised with his throws, his poise in the pocket and his electric 46-yard touchdown run before halftime. In the end though, Ball was all the rage, and caused himself to trend on Twitter worldwide because of it.

Scoring four touchdowns, three in the first half, and finishing with 145 all-purpose yards, Ball didn't let No.11 Wisconsin deviate from its bread-and-butter running attack, as the Badgers' 51-17 statement win over UNLV in front of 77,085 at Camp Randall Stadium showed there is no such thing as a Rose Bowl hangover.

"It felt really good to get back out there and let loose," said Ball, who has scored at least three touchdowns in four of his last five games and helped Wisconsin rack 499 yards of total offense. "We've been working extremely hard and practicing ourselves really hard. It felt like another practice. We go out there and get the job done."

When he flipped on the film last season after returning from the Rose Bowl, Ball saw two things: he was overweight and he was leaving too many yards on the field after being brought down with weak tackle attempts. The startling realization caused Ball to go on a strict diet of baked potatoes and cottage cheese over the winter, three-mile runs before and after workouts and a dedication to his craft.

After doing his best to harness his power through the Badgers' physical four-week fall camp, Ball got the green light to flex his muscles. In the end, Wisconsin (1-0) scored on its first eight possessions being lead by the first-team offense (seven touchdowns) and the skinny junior capped four of them off with a score.

"He's been impressive in fall camp," said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who became the sixth-fastest Big Ten coach since 1946 to reach 50 career wins. "(His vision) was exceptional, his burst and plus some strength breaking some tackles a couple times was pretty impressive."

In last season's 41-21 win over UNLV (0-1) in the dessert, the Badgers didn't need much from their passing game, as Wisconsin rushed for 278 yards, averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored four rushing touchdowns.

The same formula worked one year later, although the formula had a new equation in Wilson. One the opening drive, Ball's first three carries went for 33 yards, setting the stage for a Wilson play-action pass. On a rollout to his right, Wilson connected with Jared Abbrederis for 23 yards down to the UNLV 9. Three plays later, Wilson had his first touchdown pass and Ball had his first career touchdown catch.

"I had a chance to watch the (2011) Rose Bowl this afternoon. I replayed that in the hotel and it's the same thing, everyone had trouble with these backs and we certainly did, too," UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, who watched the Wisconsin running game rush for 241 yards, a 6.3 yards per carry average and five scores this time around. "They are good with the football in space and run hard. They have make-you-miss ability and they can get tough yards. They're impressive."

Ball was more conventional from that point on, registering a pair of 1-yard scores in the first and third quarters and a 22-yard burst in the opening quarter where he broke two tackles, cut the ball outside and broke a lower body tackle by picking up his legs high-step style, allowing him to walk into the end zone.

It's a run that Ball couldn't have pulled off last season but with his excess baggage gone, he's giving fans a taste of what could be in store.

"Not at all, no way could I have done it because I was too slow last year and I would have been tackled," Ball said. "I shocked myself a little bit. That what I wanted to do by losing all that weight and embrace the challenge. It goes to show how hard we practice and how hard we work."

As it turns out, Ball was instrumental in the passing game despite coming in with only 25 career receptions. When Wilson threw a check-down pass to Ball late in the first quarter, the junior responded with the longest run of his collegiate career, using a combination of speed and elusiveness to go 63 yards down the left sideline.

"I wanted that one bad, but it was just a good decision by Russell checking it down," said Ball, who scored his third touchdown two plays later. "That was another example because I don't think I would have been able to cut that back because I wasn't that fast last year. I am glad to see that."

Ball didn't have to carry the load alone, as sophomore James White, the 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, carried the ball nine times for 60 yards and a score while adding another 40 yards on a screen pass, setting up Kyle French's 29-yard field goal to end the half, giving the Badgers 37-3 halftime lead.

"Last year, we weren't involved in the passing game too much, but (offensive coordinator) Paul Chryst said we're going to be involved this year," said White, who had 166 all-purpose yards (64 rushing, 40 receiving yards and 62 kickoff returns) and had two of UW's seven first-half plays of 22 yards or more. "We started that off right away. Russell said he's going to be looking for us if nobody is up down field and he sure enough hit us today."

Making his first start for Wisconsin and 37th overall, Wilson finished 10-for-13 for 255 yards and two touchdowns in the air and another 62 yards and one score on the ground in a little over three quarters of action. Although Wilson missed two easy throws early, he made it look so easy at times, like his 46-yard weaving touchdown scramble through the UNLV defense.

But without the success of his running backs, Wilson's numbers would have simply looked average. Of his passing yards Thursday, 148 came from his running backs, including receptions of 63, 41 and 40 yards. More importantly, Wilson can't recall being touched one time by a UNLV defender, a testament that Wisconsin's new –look offensive line did its job in week one.

"I was ready to go and I think it was a good experience tonight," Wilson said. "Everyone has each other's back. It was a great experience. The running backs did a great job and the rest of the guys on offense did as well. The guys on the offensive line were ready to go and they were ready to go. There is a lot of great leadership on this team, which excites me."

The three-headed offensive monster was the headliner all night, but Wisconsin's defense wasn't a bad undercard. Although the group didn't force any turnovers, the defense stifled UNLV's first nine third-down conversion attempts and kept the Rebels out of the end zone until late in the third quarter.

The unit was far from perfect, however, which just how the head coach wanted it. Although the Badgers were turnover free for the third consecutive game dating back to last year, Wisconsin was penalized six times for 50 yards, which tied last season's high from the Rose Bowl, and allowed UNLV to go 2-for-2 on fourth downs.

Throw in the missed tackles and there will be plenty of things for Wisconsin to work on over the next nine days before Oregon State comes to town.

"There's enough positives to be excited but yet enough teaching points, coaching points," Bielema said. "We've got to clean that up. In tight ball games, that'll cost us. Some things that are very positive, but some things that we need to correct."

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