STATE COLLEGE – Penn State cornerback Stephon Morris doesn’t believe the rumor about Montee Ball, the one about the Wisconsin tailback having a “down year.”
If 1,400 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns are disappointing, imagine what the Wisconsin star senior can do in a good season.
This is the predicament facing the Nittany Lions (7-4, 5-2 Big Ten) when Ball and the Badgers (7-4, 4-3) roll into Happy Valley in the regular season finale today.
“I looked at his stats and was like, ‘He’s having a down year?”’ Morris said. “You can’t take anything away from that. He might make some big plays on Saturday. We’re going to have our plays, too.”
One more touchdown would give Ball 79 career scores, breaking a tie for the major college record set by Travis Prentice of Miami (Ohio) in 1999. With two straight games of at least 191 yards rushing, Ball might be the best player on the cold Beaver Stadium turf.
Temperatures aren’t expected to rise past the mid-30s and should fall throughout the game, starting at mid-afternoon. Snow flurries might fall, too.
It’s the type of old-school football weather that pumps up the adrenaline of Penn State coach Bill O’Brien.
“It’s Thanksgiving, and you’re practicing and this is what football is all about: Wisconsin versus Penn State,” O’Brien said this week. “I heard maybe it’s going to snow, which would be great. Wouldn’t that be great? This is football to me, this is football.”
But a game that, on the surface, doesn’t mean much in the Big Ten standings. Wisconsin has already locked up a berth in next week’s conference title game because the two teams ahead of the Badgers in the Leaders Division – Ohio State and Penn State – are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions. Officially, the fourth-ranked Buckeyes are the Leaders Division champs.
Wisconsin is the beneficiary of this wacky year – third place in the Leaders Division is good enough to get a shot at getting into the Rose Bowl.
But the Badgers aren’t making any excuses. Coach Bret Bielema said he doesn’t plan to hold any of his players back in the game, so long as they’re healthy and depending on the “ebb and flow” of the contest.
Wisconsin would like to bounce back from last week’s 21-14 overtime loss to No. 4 Ohio State and regain momentum heading into the league title game.
“I think we need to win this weekend to propel us into Indianapolis,” center and team captain Travis Frederick said. “I think we need to take advantage of this week, get better and really get the confidence back in our team.”
At Penn State, every game is treated like a bowl game. It’s the closest the Nittany Lions will come to a postseason feel because of NCAA penalties in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal.
And as if this weekend wasn’t going to be emotional enough for a senior class that helped keep most of the team together after the sanctions were announced, the Nittany Lions have new motivation for Saturday – to win without star linebacker Michael Mauti. The senior is out after hurting his left knee last week.
Not only will Mauti be missed in trying to stop Ball, he’s also one of Penn State’s fiery leaders. Mauti told the team this week not to worry about his health.
“We still have a game to play, he got up and told us that,” said defensive tackle Jordan Hill, another senior leader. “We can focus on him after next week. Spoken like a true leader.”
Penn State senior quarterback Matt McGloin can add another accomplishment Saturday in his already-impressive season. The school’s career leader in passing touchdowns and single-season passing yardage, McGloin needs one more score to tie Daryll Clark (2009) for the single-season passing touchdowns mark with 24.
Wisconsin has a pretty good group of seniors, too. One more victory would allow the Badgers’ current crop of seniors to tie the 2007 class for the school record with 40 victories in a four-year span.
Unlike Penn State, Wisconsin will have two more games after Saturday — the Big Ten title game and a bowl bid, Pasadena or not. A heavy dose of handoffs to Ball might be the solution the Badgers need to forget about last week’s loss to the Buckeyes.
“Our guys have had a lot invested in every game this year. And the part I’ve kind of said all along is they’re a very resilient group,” Bielema said. “So it’s a group I know will bounce back.”