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MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin's vaunted running attack found itself stuck in a badger hole nearly three weeks ago.
Wisconsin rushed for only 56 yards on 41 carries, including 12 yards on 18 carries in the second half, in a 30-27 loss at Nebraska. Through five games the Badgers ranked last in Big Ten rushing yards per game (125.6) and per carry (3.2).
The following game at Illinois, the rushing woes continued for three quarters. The Badgers stalled with 77 rushing yards through three quarters and led just 10-7. But the ground game finally started churning in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin blasted through Illinois for 96 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns in a 31-14 win.
“If everything goes as planned, if we end up where we want to end up at the end of the season, we'll look back at that fourth quarter,” Wisconsin running back Montee Ball said afterward.
Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) returned to form at Purdue last week, ramming through the Boilermakers for 467 rushing yards, fifth-most in school history. Ball earned a career-best 247 yards and put up 194 after contact. Ball, who has 11 TDs this year, ran for three scores to set the Big Ten mark for career touchdowns at 72.
Ball was a Heisman finalist last year after tying a single-season record with 39 touchdowns. Although he hasn't kept up with last year's scoring pace, he actually has exceeded last year's yardage total after seven games. He has 816 yards so far, while last year he had 768. He finished with 1,923 rushing yards in 2011.
"A lot of what you saw out of Montee is a direct result of what's going on in front of him," Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema said. "The holes are there. The people are making blocks. He's reading. But he had a number of yards on Saturday that were there, but then he earned a lot of those yards too, broke some tackles, stepped through some things, made some people miss. I just think he's really found that groove and really getting to where he wants to be."
The same goes for the Badgers' running attack. Two games later, Wisconsin now ranks fifth in Big Ten rushing with 181 yards a game. Nearly 45 percent of its rushing yards have come in the last five quarters.
While Wisconsin's offense continues to struggle on third downs - ranking last in the Big Ten - the running game has produced more in those opportunities. In a 16-14 squeaker against Utah State, seven times the Badgers faced two yards or less to reach a first down. Only twice did Wisconsin convert those plays into first downs. Against Purdue, Wisconsin converted 5-of-13 on third down and were 2-of-3 when running on third-and-2 or less.
Wisconsin's early-season struggles, which led to the dismissal of new offensive line coach Mike Markuson, now have faded into September memories. With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible this year, Wisconsin is almost assured as the Leaders Division representative for the Big Ten title game. The Badgers (5-2, 2-1) are the only remaining Leaders team with a league victory. The Badgers already have beaten Purdue and Illinois and play at Indiana on Nov. 10. Wisconsin pounded the Hoosiers the last two years by a combined score of 142-27.
"I think any time the truly successful men in life are defined more by their failures than they are by their successes," Bielema said. "If you have any bit of sense of pride in making sure you do things right. When you have some setbacks and other people begin to question you or doubt you.
"We have a tendency to stick to what we do best, and it ends up being triumphant. We're not where we need to be, but to see the rewards of some changes we made and to see the way our kids are playing is very, very rewarding. It's almost like now we have this attitude of let's just go out and prove what we have that much more."