Bielema Talks Montee Ball's Draft Prospects, Braxton Miller's Improvement

Scouts are telling head coach Bret Bielema that Montee Ball (shown) could be the first running back taken in April's NFL Draft. - Tom Lynn

Wisconsin's head coach held court on Monday after an overwhelmingly successful weekend that has the Badgers in prime position to battle the Buckeyes this Saturday.

MADISON -- A 48-point win will do a lot of things in college football. For the Wisconsin Badgers, it heals any leftover wounds from the loss to Michigan State two weekends ago, reengergizes Madison as Ohio State comes to down and renews the hype that not long ago fueled the Big Ten's most threatening offense.

Head coach Bret Bielema addressed the media in his weekly press conference on Monday and touted nine players as MVPs -- including five on offense -- of the 62-14 win at Indiana this past weekend. Left guard Ryan Groy and center Travis Frederick earned praise for paving the way for 605 yards of total offense (including a school-record 564 rushing yards), while quarterback Curt Phillips got the nod for making his first career start and playing mistake-free, efficient football.

Running James White also was an offensive MVP for his 161 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries (11.5 yards per), so of course Montee Ball must've been as well. Ball rushed 27 times, racked up 198 yards (7.3 per carry) and three touchdowns in the rout, prompting what has lately become routine weekly praise from Bielema.

This time, though, it took the form of some intriguing longer-term prognostication.

"I've had several [scouts] comment to me this year they thought he's the first back to go in this year's [NFL] Draft," Bielema said. "Many make the statement without a doubt."

Ball, as you've probably heard by now, is also one touchdown shy of tyin the NCAA career record of 78. The senior running back stands at 1,226 rushing yards (5.0 per carry) and 16 touchdowns this season, not quite Heisman Trophy-worthy but nevertheless impressive. Saturday's game against the Hoosiers provided a stark remidner of Ball's ability, much of which can apparently translate to the next level.

"I thought Saturday I saw some of those runs, but I didn't get as good a view as I did on film," Bielema said. "He even had to club a ref on one occasion to get where he needed to be. He pulled that foot out from a tackle. He was just running angry. He was out of his mind. It was unbelievable. He and James (White) just complement each other so well.

"Again, there's a lot of good players around him, but I think Montee is going to be very, very happy on draft day."

Miller a "really, really gifted human being"

The first and only time Bielema and the Badgers have seen Braxton Miller came in last year's brutal 33-29 last-minute loss in Columbus. It was Wisconsin's second loss in as many weeks that ended on a Hail Mary-esque play, as Miller tossed a 40-yard bomb to a wide-open Devin Smith with just 20 seconds remaining. Miller finished the game 7-of-12 with 89 yards and that touchdown, though he wreaked havoc on UW's defense with 19 carries for 99 yards (5.2 per carry) and two touchdowns.

His freshman season cast him as a wildly promising dual-threat quarterback, but Miller has now emerged as a viable Heisman candidate in his sophomore season. In completing 56.9 percent of his passes, Miller has thrown for 1,753 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. On the ground, the Huber Heights, Ohio, native has rushed for 1,166 yards (6.3 per carry) and 13 touchdowns.

Miller is naturally one of the greatest reasons Ohio State leads the Big Ten with 39.9 points per game and has cruised to a 10-0 season despite its bowl ineligibility. In discussing his view on Miller, Bielema drew back to the quarterback's high school days. Bielema said Wisconsin recruited Miller and also signed his teammate, sophomore lineman Josh Harrison.

"I go back to high school; you knew there was a tremendous athlete and a tremendous kid," Bielema said. "We tried to recruit him, as well. Just a really, really gifted human being. [He had a] live arm last year; I didn't know how accurate it was, but this year that's probably the thing, his accuracy. Probably a little bit of a combination of one more year experience and also the scheme they put in around him."

That last statement was a nod to Ohio State's new direction under head coach Urban Meyer. In his first season in Columbus, Meyer has steered the Buckeyes' offense away from the more traditional attack present under Jim Tressel -- Bielema referenced Tressel's offense as pretty similar to what Wisconsin runs -- and more toward the extremely varied sets he ran at Florida. OSU averages 256.1 rushing yards per game (second in the Big Ten) and 189.2 passing yards per game (tied for seventh) and has scored less than 20 points just once this season.

The Bielema-Meyer "match-up," as one reporter at the press conference awkwardly termed it, is intriguing considering the war of words in which the two coaches found themselves embroiled back during the offseason. After one-time Badgers commit Kyle Dodson, an offensive lineman from Cleveland, ended up committing to the Buckeyes, Wisconsin joined Penn State and Michigan State as schools that had given up four-star prospects to Ohio State. Bielema stated his belief that Meyer's recruiting tactics were "illegal" and that he would call Meyer for an explanation.

The controversy eventually subsided, as Bielema later limited his complaints to just one issue, the longstanding "gentleman's agreement" Big Ten coaches apparently have in not recruiting players who have publicly committed to other conference schools. Asked about the situation on Monday, Bielema largely danced around it in an obvious effort not to provide any bulletin-board material so early in the week.

"Obviously, there was a lot written in the offseason. The unfortunate part of that is it was really a lot of to do about nothing," Bielema said. "I only met Urban a couple of times before, obviously, his induction into the league. One was a real enjoyable experience when he came here as an analyst. I really enjoyed sitting down with him, and hopefully he did as well. So that part is unfortunate.

"I think the part that's grown out of this is we do a lot of recruiting in Ohio. So the kids know each other. That builds up a little bit of animosity and some feelings out there more than anything. I've learned early on in my coaching career you lose more friends in recruiting in the coaching world than you do on game days. I think Saturdays, you just kind of play, shake hands afterwards and move on. Recruiting, you wear that on your sleeve. That's something that's the lifeline of your program, and a lot of times that's where feelings get very emotional."

Notes:
  • The defensive MVPs from Saturday were defensive tackle Beau Allen and cornerback Devin Smith. On special teams, kicker Kyle French and receiver/gunner Kenzel Doe were named MVPs.
  • Saturday's game is also Wisconsin's Senior Day. Nine seniors will be honored in a ceremony before the game, as well as two former UW players -- defensive tackle Jordan Kohout and tight end Zach Davison -- who left the program early due to health concerns.
  • In mentioning the Senior Day festivities, Bielema made sure to highlight one side-note. With a head nod to the media and cameras situated in front of the podium, Bielema made clear his desire for a packed and raucous Camp Randall Stadium -- and most importantly, an on-time arrival from the student section: "I will say I'm excited to see Camp Randall at 2:30 with an undefeated Ohio State team coming to town. I think it will be a great environment. I hope everyone shows up. Be loud and be proud."
  • Even with the Badgers guaranteed a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game, Bielema said he will not rest any players this weekend. He did leave room for that to change in the regular-season finale at Penn State, however.
  • Bielema was especially complimentary of Doe's special teams efforts. Doe has been a member of the kickoff coverage unit for the past two games, and apparently he blocked six field goals back in high school.
  • After discussing Ball's draft prospects, Bielema also said scouts have asked frequently asked about cornerbacks Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie, as well as safety Shelton Johnson. Bielema did say that Cromartie, while he has had a strong season, is a "guy that has to constantly be challenged."
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