COLUMBUS — The last time Ohio State traveled to Wisconsin, the soon-to-be best running back in college football was nowhere to be found.
Montee Ball celebrated with his teammates among the ocean of red that swallowed the field after the Badgers’ 31-18 win against top-ranked OSU. But privately, the sophomore burned. Ball had not played a single down, stuck on the depth chart behind senior John Clay and freshman James White.
In the throes of frustration, he considered both leaving or staying but as a linebacker.
“Anyway to get on the field,” Ball said.
Sensing a crossroads, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema told his coaches the next day, “Grab Montee and say something to him, love him up.”
“We’re going to need him down the stretch,” he recalled telling his assistants.
Bielema could not have imagined what happened next.
When the sixth-ranked Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) return to Madison on Saturday, their ability to limit Ball — and stave off history — will be a defining storyline.
Since that night in October, 2010, Ball has become one of the most prolific rushers in major college football … ever.
A Heisman Trophy finalist last season, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound senior needs just two trips to the end zone Saturday to become the all-time FBS career touchdowns leader — and end a season that began in near-tragedy on top.
Ball has 77 career touchdowns — one shy of the record set by former Miami of Ohio tailback Travis Prentice.
“It's kind of mind-boggling, obviously, as many great players have played in the history of college football,” Bielema said. “One thing that jumps out to me is … he hasn't been the guy for four years. He's really been the guy for two and a half, which makes it even more remarkable.”
Ball hopes the record falls in his final game at Camp Randall Stadium, though he knows it will not come easily. As he said this week, “If I was [OSU], I wouldn't want for anybody to break a record on me.”
Saturday’s game will match strength against strength — a test of wills between Ball and a stable of UW backs that ran for a school-record 564 yards last week at Indiana and Ohio State’s rush defense.
Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2) will deploy few frills. With the Badgers down to third-string quarterback Curt Phillips, they only attempted seven passes last week. Look for more balance against Ohio State, though if UW can help it, not much more.
“There’s no real beating around the bushes,” OSU defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said. “They’re definitely going to try to run the ball on you and establish that. It’s going to come down to our front seven.”
OSU, meanwhile, is suited for the challenge.
While the Buckeyes have at times struggled to defend spread offenses, they have reliably slowed opposing backs.
They are second in the Big Ten and 16th nationally in rush defense at 107.9 yards per game and have held their last two opponents — Penn State and Illinois — to a combined 106 yards via the ground.
Still, coach Urban Meyer said Ball and Co. will “embarrass” the Buckeyes if they are not sound.
“He'll be a fine NFL running back," Meyer said of Ball, who has rushed for 1,126 yards and 16 TDs this season.
“He's got great vision … he's got great acceleration, much faster than I originally thought. He's a big-time, big-time back.”
Ball, who returned for his senior season to improve on a third-round draft projection, said he will worry about the NFL later. For now, the St. Louis native feels blessed to be enjoying the final days of a farewell season that nearly ended before it began.
On Aug. 1, Ball was beaten unconscious by five men as he walked home after a night out in Madison. The attack, which police called unprovoked, left him with a concussion and out of practice for much of training camp.
Ball returned for the start of the season but, like the Badgers, struggled to gain his footing.
He was held without a touchdown for the first time in 21 games during a Week 2 loss at Oregon State. (Bielema fired first-year offensive line coach Mike Markuson afterward.)
“But it didn’t take me that long to get back to my old self,” he said.
The result is the brink of history and, unlike two years ago, a leading role when the Buckeyes crash town.
“I always give him a little bit of heat,” Bielema said. “If he would have come in and told me [after the OSU game] he wanted to switch to linebacker, I probably wouldn't have let him as bad as he might have pleaded. I think we always knew all along he was going to be pretty special.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.