Montee Ball got his first career start against Indiana last year. From that moment on, the Wisconsin tailback has rushed for more than 1,100 yards and scored 26 touchdowns in a span of just nine games. Ball has reached the end zone 14 times this year and is on pace to shatter the Big Ten single-season touchdown record of 26. As the Badgers prepared to face Indiana again this week, I caught up with the junior from Wentzville, Mo., for our Friday Q&A:
I have to ask, based on where you're from: Are you a St. Louis Cardinals fan?
Montee Ball: Yes, I am. I went to a lot of games growing up with my parents.
OK, what's it like being a Cardinals fan in Wisconsin right now?
MB: I love, it actually. Because there are a bunch of Brewers fans here and I like talking trash to them about the Cardinals, especially when we killed them [Monday] night.
What did you guys focus on during your bye week?
MB: Coach [Bret] Bielema stressed to us to make sure we really get in the film room and take time to self-scout ourselves and see where we're making mistakes, and to make sure we're correcting them with all this time before we play our next opponent. And coach really stressed as a team to stay off our feet, get a chance to get away from football and to watch other college football around the nation as we get our bodies healthy.
What games did you watch last Saturday?
MB: I watched Indiana play Illinois. Obviously, I wanted to see how they [Indiana] played, to see how their players moved and all that stuff.
You guys beat Indiana 83-20 last year. How do you guard against overconfidence this week?
MB: It's a different team and a different coaching staff and a different season. Anything can happen on any given Saturday. We have to make sure we practice just as hard as we always do and come out with the right mentality to get the 'W.'
What do you remember about making your first start last year against the Hoosiers?
MB: I remember working extremely hard up to that point. I think it was my first 100-yard game. [Actually, it was his second]. That just cemented to me that hard work pays off, and I've got to keep the hard work going.
This team is getting a lot of national attention, almost all of it overwhelmingly positive. How do you keep that from going to your heads?
MB: I feel we're a real mature group. We understand that with success comes a lot of hype, a lot of noise and stuff. But we're able to block it out because we know that with a loss or a poor performance, it can all slip away. So we have to make sure we keep grinding and keep leaving no doubt.
You dropped some pounds in the offseason. How have you noticed that has affected your play?
MB: I'm able to take more carries. I'm able to have a lot more longer runs. I'm able to shed more tackles. I feel like I'm getting to the defense faster. Overall, I'm more conditioned, and my cuts are a lot quicker. I'm grateful I embraced that challenge.
You've had 28 touchdowns in your last 10 games. Does it ever get old to get in the end zone?
MB: Not at all. It's a great cap to the drive we had up to that point. Being able to finish that drive with a touchdown is obviously a lot better than just a field goal. So it's a relief.
You have 14 touchdowns in five games this season, which is a ridiculous pace. Is it hard to believe you've scored that many times?
MB: Yeah, it is. But I want people to know it's a collective achievement by the whole offense. Being an offensive lineman and saying you're blocking for two players who are running extremely hard is just as good, because those guys do a great job up front.
A lot of running backs would kill to run behind your offensive line. What's it like to have those guys blocking for you?
MB: James [White] and I feel extremely comfortable. We have no doubts. We know what each players' strengths are, and we know they're going to move defenders off of us and create big holes and get us to the secondary.
What do you do to show those linemen some love whenever you score?
MB: After every drive and every touchdown, I make sure to go and celebrate with those guys first. Once I get to the sideline, I make sure to talk to them and tell them good job. I tell them to keep going because it starts with them up front.
What has the addition of Russell Wilson meant to the running game?
MB: It most definitely takes pressure off us. Defenses have to respect his passing game and our receivers, and when we spread it out to run, that creates even bigger holes. I think having Russell Wilson in this program creates a lot of stress on defensive coordinators.
Take us back to your recruiting process. How did you choose Wisconsin?
MB: A few schools around my area were talking to me and getting to know me. What brought me here was, on my visit, the coaching staff was really friendly. I know they all are supposed to be, but I really had a connection with them. I loved the atmosphere, and I loved how this state is really football oriented. They eat breathe and sleep football. And with it also being a running back program, I really felt like this was the best choice for me.
You guys are off to a great start and a high ranking. You came close to an undefeated season last year. How driven are you to get that done this year?
MB: We want to finish this thing off right. We worked extremely hard in the summer and fall leading up to this point, and want to make sure we don't let each other down. We want to make a big statement this year.
Finally, are the Cardinals going to get to the World Series?
MB: Oh, yeah. No doubt. I'm talking so much trash right now.