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December 13, 2010

Ball would be starting running back right now

MADISON -- One of the biggest debates since the Badgers earned a Rose Bowl berth has been focused on the distribution of carries among three running backs.

Do you go with what's working in Montee Ball and James White? Or do you rely on your veteran running back John Clay, who just happens to have a Big Ten offensive player of the year award to his credit?

Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema may have answered those questions Sunday night, when he met with reporters.

"Right now, Montee would be our starting running back," Bielema said, matter of factly. "John has to wait for a few other guys to get in. Montee's playing as good of football as anybody. No question."

Well that sure seems to clear things up. Or does it?

With three weeks remaining until the Rose Bowl, it would not be out of the question for Bielema to change his mind and put Clay in the No. 1 spot. After all, he did say "right now" when referring to Ball as his starter.

While all three running backs have clearly expressed their support for one another, they never stop competing for carries. The idea that they have to work in practice to touch the ball in the game is not lost on the players either.

"I'd like to get my spot back, like how we were in the beginning of the year," Clay said. "But I've just got to work for it. The guys played a heck of a few games when I was out, so I've just got to prove it again."

Another thing that people can't help but notice when looking ahead to the matchup with TCU is the potential for Wisconsin to have as many as three backs with 1,000 yards rushing on the year.

"Hopefully we can all get to it in this Rose Bowl game," White added. "I don't think any school's ever done that before."

White leads the way with 1,029 after another big performance against Northwestern, with Clay and Ball not far behind. Even after missing so much time, Clay needs just 64 yards to give the Badgers a second 1,000-yard rusher.

Ball's chances aren't as strong, but 136 yards certainly is not out of the question for the sophomore. When you consider he's rushed for 127, 167, 173 and 178 yards against Purdue, Indiana, Michigan and Northwestern, it would almost be a surprise for Ball to come up shy of the mark.

Add his apparent status as the starting running back and his chances certainly improve even more. It's not really something that he's focusing on, though.

"First and foremost, the goal is to come out with a victory," Ball said. "But it wouldn't be a bad thing to crack 1,000. It's definitely something that's in the back of my mind and it's going to motivate me to run even harder."

In an ideal scenario, a big first half by Clay and the Badgers could give Wisconsin a big lead, with two of three backs over 1,000 yards on the year.

If that were to happen, how would those two running backs feel about deferring to Ball, to let him become the third to reach the milestone?

"Oh yeah, get his 1,000 yards, too," Clay said. "He worked hard this whole season, so we might as well feed him the ball."

Bielema was not so quick to embrace the idea of boosting Ball's carries to get him to the 1,000-yard mark.

With his focus on winning, and not just playing in, the Rose Bowl, he expected to do whatever was needed to win.

"It's obviously very attainable, but it's not on our game plan list," Bielema said. "The awards we're getting and the recognition we get is a byproduct of what we do, and that's going to be one of those same things."



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