Badgers get boost from Ball's surprise call

It has been a rough few days for the Wisconsin Badgers, who lost their second consecutive Rose Bowl on Monday and lost two more assistant coaches Wednesday.

But the week is ending on a very good note: "MoneyBall" is waiting to cash in.

Translation: Montee Ball will remain at Wisconsin for his senior season.

Ball, the Badgers' star running back, announced his decision to stay at a Thursday afternoon news conference. Badgers fans have to be thrilled and also a bit surprised by Ball's choice.

While the Big Ten's NFL draft decisions so far have been as expected -- Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, Iowa's Riley Reiff and Michigan State's Jerel Worthy all were expected to forgo their senior seasons and did -- Ball raised a few eyebrows by opting to stay.

The biggest reason? His position. Running backs typically bolt for the NFL when their stock is high, and Ball's stock rose after a season when he led the nation in rushing (1,923 yards), matched Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season touchdowns record (39) and earned consensus All-America honors. Given the short span of pro careers for most running backs, Ball's choice to delay his NFL entry makes him unique.

On the other hand, Ball isn't projected to be a first-round pick, unlike the Big Ten's three early entrants. In fact, he received a third-round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee, which "really disappointed" him.

There have been concerns about his pass-blocking and even his size after he slimmed down considerably after the 2010 season. Ball said he plans to increase his weight to 215 on the recommendation of the NFL draft advisory committee.

"That's what I’m going to do this spring, see if my body can handle 215," he said.

It's hard to expect Ball to duplicate his 2011 performance in the fall, as star quarterback Russell Wilson departs and the team has major questions under center. The offense also will operate with a new coordinator and two new assistants after Paul Chryst, Bob Bostad and DelVaughn Alexander all departed for positions elsewhere.

"Obviously I’m taking a pretty huge gamble coming back," he said.

His decision is great news for Wisconsin and for those who love college football. He'll be the Big Ten's top Heisman Trophy candidate entering the 2011 season and one of the national front-runners. Ball's decision also solidifies Wisconsin as the Leaders division favorite in 2012, especially because Ohio State is ineligible to reach the Big Ten title game.

Ball also puts himself in position to finish as one of the greatest running backs in Big Ten history. He ranks fifth in the Big Ten in career rushing touchdowns with 51, 20 behind former Wisconsin star Ron Dayne, the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner. Although Ball won't catch Dayne on the career rushing list, he could move into the top five in the Big Ten with a strong senior season. He has 3,310 career rush yards -- former Michigan State star Lorenzo White is fifth with 4,887. And unlike most of the backs on the Big Ten's career chart, Ball won't be a four-year starter.

"These four years that I'll be here, I want to make sure I put a huge stamp on this university," he said.

It will take some time to know whether "MoneyBall" made a good business decision.

But Wisconsin fans have to be stoked. The rest of the Big Ten? Not so much.