77. One more touchdown this Saturday against Ohio State, and Montee Ball will tie Miami of Ohio's Travis Prentice for the career FBS touchdowns from scrimmage record. Two more rushing touchdowns, and Ball will tie Prentice for the career FBS rushing touchdown record. If the Badgers are to pull out a victory Saturday against the Buckeyes, Ball will probably need to break one (if not both) of those records.
As such, now seems as good a time as ever to look at the careers of Ball and Prentice in context.
Unfortunately, college football does not exactly have the robustness of data fans of professional sports are accustomed to. Baseball has retrosheet -- every single game on a play-by-play level dating all the way back to the 1950s. Pro-Football-Reference has most seasonal data from the Super Bowl era, although play-by-play only goes back to 2000. Basketball statistics are widely available on a box score level, even if things like blocks weren't kept in early box scores.
Non-major college football, though? If it happened before 2000, good luck. Prentice is a great illustration of that fact. Sports-Reference/CFB, the sports data giant's college football wing, only has data for Prentice's sophomore and junior seasons. According to just the data contained on their servers, Ball broke the touchdown record last week when he passed Ricky Williams. So we'll have to do a little work if we're going to get Prentice's career numbers -- stuff like attempts, particularly -- for a robust comparison.
Here's what we know, from Sports-Reference: in Prentice's sophomore and junior years, he combined to carry the ball 661 times for 3,336 yards and 44 touchdowns; he added 34 catches for 245 yards and another score. Wikipedia offers some of his running statistics: 123 rushes for 601 yards and 12 touchdowns his freshman year; 1,659 yards and 17 touchdowns (no carry total) his senior year. That leaves him at 74 total touchdowns, meaning he must have caught four touchdown passes between his freshman and senior years. Although Wiki doesn't offer the rush total for his senior year, they do give a career carry total of 1,138, leaving him at 354 for his senior year.
That's most of the data; we'll live without receiving numbers. Here's a year-by-year comparison of Ball with Prentice, just as rushers:
Part of what makes Ball's accomplishments over his four years in Madison so remarkable is how buried he was on the depth chart when he came in. He didn't get the ball often as a freshman and frankly didn't do much with it, needing 24 carries per touchdown and rushing for under four yards per carry. But even as John Clay owned the top spot during Ball's sophomore year -- and James White made his presence felt, too -- Ball emerged as a key contributor.
Prentice didn't get quite the carry load his freshman year that he saw the rest of his career, but for the most part it was a consistent load. He'd add five yards per carry, but fewer touchdowns per rush as the carries piled up. Ball's ability to maintain excellent per carry production last season even as he took on one of the bigger carry loads in the nation was tremendous -- and, as we see with Prentice, not something we can realistically expect even out of the elite backs in a conference.
Volume was the driver behind Prentice's key numbers -- carrying the ball over 1,000 times in college is a feat, to be sure, but more of an individual accomplishment than a measure of how his performance impacted team success. By every efficiency measure -- both yards and scoring -- Ball has been a significantly better per-carry back, and that's why he's been able to parlay limited time as a starter in to a record breaking career.
Ball's senior season has seen a few things weigh on him -- an even higher carry load, a higher burden thanks to the significantly worse quarterback and line play, and concussion issues -- and so it shouldn't surprise his production has fallen off a touch in 2012. But he's still managed to be one of the best runners in college football even with all the issues, and with four games left, he'll have every chance to blow by Prentice and take his place as the top scorer in college football history.