By Gary Klein Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Russell Wilson did not believe it.
During workouts last summer, Wisconsin running back Montee Ball informed the recently arrived quarterback that he had never caught a touchdown pass for the Badgers.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, right?” said Wilson, who transferred from North Carolina State.
Ball wasn’t joking.
“I was like ‘Man, I’ve gotta get this guy the ball,’” Wilson reflected this week. “He’s got to find different ways to get into the end zone.”
The quarterback did not waste any time coming through.
Less than four minutes into its season opener against Nevada Las Vegas, Wisconsin scored its first touchdown on a short pass from Wilson to Ball.
Ball enters Monday’s Rose Bowl game with a nation-leading 38 touchdowns, six on passes from Wilson.
The two players, both top-10 finishers in Heisman Trophy balloting, helped lead Wisconsin to an 11-2 record and its second consecutive appearance in Pasadena.
The Rose Bowl game against Oregon will be their last as college teammates, and perhaps the final time either is in the Badgers’ backfield.
Wilson, a senior, was ninth in Heisman voting. He is out of eligibility after taking advantage of an NCAA rule that allows players who have earned degrees to transfer and play immediately.
Ball, a junior who finished fourth in the Heisman race, is pondering a jump to the NFL.
“They have the full complement as far as when you’re looking at an offense,” Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. “A team that can run downhill and hurt you with play-action.”
Wisconsin fans can thank the Colorado Rockies and North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien for helping the Badgers return to the Rose Bowl.
It was the Rockies who selected Wilson, a Richmond, Va., native, in the fourth round of the 2010 Major League Baseball amateur draft.
O’Brien released Wilson from his scholarship last spring after the quarterback passed up spring practice to play infield for the Rockies’ Class-A affiliate in Asheville (N.C.).
The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Wilson, a three-year starter for the Wolfpack who had earned his degree in communications, was suddenly a college football free agent.
He looked at defending Bowl Championship Series champion Auburn, which had just lost Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton. But he landed at Wisconsin, where Scott Tolzien had moved on after leading the Badgers to their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1999.
“The pro-style offense,” Wilson said. “I knew that would help me down the road.”
The day after Wilson arrived in Madison last summer, he called receiver Nick Toon to set up an informal workout.
“After the first couple passes,” Toon said. “I knew he was the real deal.”
If there was any doubt, it disappeared at the end of the session. Wilson bet Toon he could hit the crossbar of the goal post with a pass from 35 yards.
Then he did it on his first attempt.
“I think that’s when he started getting excited about the opportunities,” Wilson said.
A few days later, Wilson stood up during a team meeting and confidently addressed his new teammates.
“He said, ‘I’m here to get you guys to where you want to go,’” Ball recalled.
Wilson learned the playbook in less than a month and enjoyed a stellar season from the outset. He has passed for 31 touchdowns with only three interceptions. He also has rushed for five touchdowns and caught a touchdown pass from Ball.
“He makes a lot of good plays when he has pressure in his face,” Oregon rover Eddie Pleasant said of Wilson. “Watching him on film, he flings the ball 50 yards on the run.”
Having a highly productive quarterback only helped Ball get rolling.
Last season, the 5-11, 210-pound Ball shared carries with freshman James White and junior John Clay, who both rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Ball finished with 996, leaving the Badgers four yards shy of becoming the first team in NCAA history to have three players rush for more than 1,000.
But it wasn’t easy for Ball. After he did not play in a midseason game against Ohio State, he considered asking coaches to move him to linebacker.
“My dad told me, ‘You’re not being honest with yourself, true to yourself,’” Ball recalled. “He said, ‘Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself what you’re not doing right and then get it done.’”
After the season, new running backs coach Thomas Hammock asked Ball a question: How do you plan on being the best in the country at your position if you’re sharing carries with someone on your own team?
“That really hit me,” said Ball, who spent the off-season performing extra conditioning drills, watching film and following a healthful diet.
Ball started the opener against Nevada Las Vegas and scored four touchdowns. He has scored at least twice in every game since and has rushed for 1,759 yards, more than any player in major college football.
“I just took off,” Ball said, “and kept going.”
Ball needs one touchdown to tie Barry Sanders’ NCAA record of 39 in a season. (Sanders, who played at Oklahoma State from 1986-1988, scored 44 touchdowns in 1988, but the NCAA did not include bowl statistics until 2002.)
“I don’t think anyone can be compared to Barry,” Ball said.
Ball is now weighing whether to return to Madison next season or to declare for the NFL draft. Meantime, Wilson has put baseball on hold so he can pursue a pro football career.
Ball thinks back to those early workouts, when Wilson critiqued the way he ran pass routes. And to the meeting when Wilson told Badgers players he would get them to where they wanted to be.
“He said, ‘We’re going to make sure we do it,’” Ball said, “And we did.”