All systems are go for Ball and James

Montee Ball, left, and LaMichael James have put up stunning numbers in very different offenses. AP Photo

LOS ANGELES -- Montee Ball had hoped to meet LaMichael James at "The Home Depot College Football Awards" show on Dec. 8. Alas, James had finals and couldn't attend.

It's no wonder Ball wanted to size up maybe the only running back in the country with numbers as impressive as his own. The two will save their meeting for Monday at the Rose Bowl, which seems like a worthy summit for these two stars.

Oregon's James leads the nation in rushing yards per game (149.6) and yards per carry (7.4). Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Ball has the most total rushing yards (1,759) and has scored more touchdowns in a season than every FBS player not named Barry Sanders (38).

They're both juniors who will likely jump to the NFL after this game. The similarities pretty much end there, however, as each is a different kind of runner, playing in a vastly different type of offense from his counterpart.

"What he brings to the table is speed, and I believe what I bring to the table is obviously a lot of power, strength and a little bit of speed as well," Ball said.

"You know, he's probably 215 pounds and I'm like 190," James said. "He runs in the I [formation]. I run in the spread. I don't really think there's a comparison between the two."

But they will be compared, both this week and beyond. When both are poked and prodded during the NFL evaluation process, scouts and others are likely to ask whether they succeeded because of the systems they play in.

In Ball's case, such questions are inevitable. Badgers running backs benefit from the program's traditionally strong offensive line and a run-first mentality. Few Wisconsin running backs have made a dent in the pros. This year, Ball became the first Badgers' Heisman Trophy finalist since Ron Dayne won the award in 1999, and Dayne -- who was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame this week -- is often held up as an example of a college star who was an NFL bust.

Of course, Ball isn't built anything like the rumbling Dayne. You'd be hard-pressed to find many flaws in his game right now.

"He's a bigger guy, but he has really great feet," James said. "And the physicality is pretty nifty, too."

James will face a different set of skepticism. He's a smaller back at 5-foot-9. He also plays in a spread offense and gets a lot of his yards out of the zone option, though Oregon has run that less this year than in the past. But he doesn't average nearly 7.5 yards per carry on the system alone.

"He's tough for a littler guy," Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. "He'll run between the tackles, and people will not get him down. He'll run through you, around you, beat you with speed, whatever he's got to do. Very rarely do you see one individual getting him down on the tape."

Which back is better? It's nearly impossible to say since they play such different styles. But it would be fun to imagine how each would do in the other's shoes.

Ball grew up outside of St. Louis but wasn't interested in going to Missouri because of the spread offense there. He wanted to play for a power-run team, which is why he looked hardest at Iowa and Wisconsin.

"I've thought about it a couple times, taking a lot of carries from the [shot]gun and stuff like that," Ball said. "It would be a lot of fun, obviously, getting the ball into open space."

Wisconsin has usually liked big backs. But can you imagine James hiding behind the Badgers' enormous front wall before exploding through the gaps?

"I know I would be successful in their offense," James said. "No. 67 [Wisconsin left tackle Josh Oglesby], I can just sit behind him all day."

Are James and Ball "system guys"? Well, aren't all football players indebted to the type of players and play calling that surround them?

"I think with any team, the running back obviously is a product of the system," Ball said. "But they do a great job of staying on his strengths, basically putting him in open space with the football. And the same with us. We do a great job of keeping me protected behind the big offensive linemen so I can weave my way around them and score a touchdown."

How much the system contributes to each player's success really doesn't matter. All we know is, no one has developed a defensive system to stop them yet.

"I think Montee Ball would flourish in a spread offense," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "He'd flourish in an I-offense. He'd flourish in a Wildcat offense. And I think LaMichael would be the same way."