No Bitter Badger

He finished with 22 first-place votes and 348 total points, over 1,200 points behind Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, but Wisconsin junior running back Montee Ball didn't care whether he won or loss. To him, getting recognized for his achievement was more than enough.

MADISON – Before Monday, the best birthday gift Montee Ball had ever received was a watch valued around $200 from his girlfriend. Unfortunately for her, that time piece will always be second best.

Ball was speechless hours after watching his name be read live as one of five 2011 Heisman finalists and while he's never been one for individual awards, getting recognized as one of the five best in the game meant something more than words could accurately describe to the junior running back from Wentzville, Missouri.

He knew he was considered a darkhorse to win the Heisman Trophy, but the fact that his hard work was validated meant more to him than what any 25-pound award could signify, a reason he didn't care if he won or lost.

"During the season, you don't think too much about awards and personal accomplishments but now that we have some time off, it's all starting to sink in," said Ball. "I am just swimming in it right now."

On Saturday night, with his parents and head coach sitting behind him for support, Ball finished fourth in the Heisman voting, behind Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, who won the Heisman, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who finished runner up for the second straight season, and Alabama running back Trent Richardson, who beat out ball for the Doak Walker Award as the nation's best running back Thursday despite rushing for fewer yards and 15 fewer touchdowns.

Ball, who was named a first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association this week, received 22 first-place votes and 348 total points. Griffin won with 405 first-place votes and 1,687 total points. Luck tallied 247 first-place votes and 1,407 points and Richardson received 138 first-place votes with 978 points. LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu placed fifth among the five finalists, with 34 first-place votes and 327 total points.

"It's an overwhelming feeling right now," said Ball. "What I did this season, I feel like it's a great thing I did and I am glad that I embraced the challenges in the offseason and carried it forward to this season."

His play during the season certainly warranted a selection to the final five.

Ball leads the nation with 1,759 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns scored, with 32 coming on the ground, despite not having carried the ball in the fourth quarter in six games this season. He ranks fourth in the country in yards per game, at 135.3 per contest, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. During the Badgers' current five-game winning streak, he averaged 181.2 yards per game and scored 14 rushing touchdowns.

During Ron Dayne's 1999 Heisman season for a two-loss Wisconsin team that went to the Rose Bowl: 303 carries, 1,834 yards, 19 touchdowns, 6.1 yards per carry; one catch for 19 yards. For Ball's 2011 season: 275 carries, 1,759 yards, 32 touchdowns, 6.4 yards per carry; 20 catches for 255 yards and six touchdowns.

"It's crazy stats," said Ball. "Those are pretty good stats. I'm really proud of myself. I can finally sit back and say I earned it, especially with how hard I've worked for it."

In UW's games against top rush defenses (average defensive rank of 27.3), Ball had 108 carries for 632 yards (5.85 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns. In comparison, Richardson's stats against his top rush defenses (average rank 30.3), Richardson had 97 carries for 488 yards and (5.0 yards per carry) and five touchdowns.

"They're probably be a little trash talking going on," said Ball, referring to him having better numbers than Richardson, "in a good positive way."

Ball enters the Jan. 2 Rose Bowl against No.6 Oregon needing one touchdown to tie Barry Sanders' NCAA record for touchdowns in a season (39). Sanders set the record in 11 regular-season games and added five touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl against Wyoming. At the time, the NCAA did not include postseason accomplishments in a player's or team's statistics.

However, Sanders scored a touchdown every 10.1 touches that season while Ball has a touchdown every 7.6 touches.

"I am really, really close to it," Ball said. "I am confident that I'll get it."

After rushing for 996 yards and 18 touchdowns as a top-heavy sophomore, Ball lost 26 pounds behind a rigorous running regimen and a steady diet of cottage cheese and baked potatoes. When this season began, he quickly became the Badgers' starting running back in place of James White.

The move might never have happened had Ball not listened to his father. After not playing against No.1 Ohio State last season and having to endure the death of two grandparents, Ball contemplated a switch to linebacker, a position he played in little league and high school, in order to get on the field.

But after a face-to-face talk with his parents, who had moved to the area from Missouri to give him support, Ball decided to stay the course and keep working. As a result, in the last 19 games, Ball has scored 53 touchdowns (26 more than any other FBS player) and scored at least two touchdowns in every game this season.

"Not stepping on the field against Ohio State really did something to me, really triggered something in my mind and I am really grateful that it did happened," Ball said. "I wouldn't be in this situation probably if I played against Ohio State. I pushed myself extremely hard, knowing that I wasn't physical enough and studied the game well enough. I just knew that I have to produce now or never."

Ball's standout games this season included a 151-yard, four-touchdown performance against Nebraska - the first Big Ten player to rush for four TDs vs. an AP Top-10 team since Dayne did it in 1999 Rose Bowl vs. UCLA.

He added 224 yards rushing in a game against Illinois, four touchdowns in the Leaders Division-clinching victory against Penn State and three more rushing scores during Wisconsin's 42-39 victory against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship.

This season, Ball was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, won the Big Ten's inaugural Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year Award and the winner of the 2011 Chicago Tribune Silver Football, which has been bestowed upon the Big Ten's best player since 1924.

Ball was the first Wisconsin player to be a Heisman finalist since Badgers running back Ron Dayne, who won the award in 1999. Needless to say, his first trip to New York was something he won't forget.

"It will be great," said Ball, "to be able to go to New York represent this conference and represent this university."

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