University of Wisconsin senior running back Montee Ball has never minded sharing the spotlight with junior backup James White.
And even though they compete at almost everything they do, Ball was happy to defer to White after the two friends ran wild for a second straight game on Saturday, carrying the Badgers to a 38-13 victory over Minnesota in front of 80,587 fans at Camp Randall Stadium.
One week after Ball’s career day in the win over Purdue, White came up with his second-best performance as a Badger: 15 carries for 175 yards and three touchdowns. While Ball finished with 24 carries for 166 yards and two scores, he was happy to give top billing to White.
When asked who had the better day, Ball said, “James, for sure. He had the high-energy play of the game. He brought the spark. I didn’t bring the spark, so he made sure he was going to bring that spark early, which was something we needed.”
The Badgers have dominated this series for almost two decades with a bruising running game and this one was no different. They rolled up 337 yards on the ground to give them a staggering 804 in the past two games.
It was their ninth straight win in the series and 16th in the past 18 years. The Badgers also won their 21st straight home game to improve to 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten Conference.
They accomplished all of that with a revamped offensive line, due to the knee injury that kept out senior left tackle Ricky Wagner. Left guard Ryan Groy made his first start at left tackle, while Robert Burge and Zac Matthias rotated at left guard.
“To have Ricky Wagner, probably our best offensive lineman, out of there, to be able to do those things, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” UW coach Bret Bielema said.
Ball sputtered at the start, gaining 35 yards on 10 carries in the first half. But White picked up the slack, which makes this such a dangerous combination. White had seven carries for 98 yards in the first half, including touchdown runs of 14 and 34 yards.
The first came when UW unveiled the Wildcat formation, with White taking a direct snap from center. He scored on a romp around right end on the second play utilizing the formation — coming on UW’s second series — for a 7-0 lead.
The Badgers refer to it as “Barge,” because it includes seven offensive linemen.
“The defense was very confused the first time they saw it,” White said. “It’s an extra way to keep the defense off-balance.”
So is having two backs who complement each other so well. While Ball gets most of his yards between the tackles, White is dangerous in space.
“They learn from each other but they also play off of each other,” center Travis Frederick said. “It’s great to have that one-two punch because you have both options.”
They are also always trying to one-up the other.
“We compete and see who has the most yards each and every game,” White said. “If I break one, he wants to break one.”
They also realize they won’t be together much longer.
“We know this is the last few months together,” Ball said. “We want to go out with a bang.”
The Gophers (4-3, 0-3) started a freshman quarterback in Philip Nelson, who was playing in his first college game, behind their own banged-up line. So coach Jerry Kill felt good when his team, trailing 14-6, lined up for a 51-yard field-goal attempt on the final play of the first half.
Jordan Wetstein had plenty of leg and Kill thought the kick was good, but it was ruled wide left.
“Then we came out and got a stop and thought we were going to hang in there,” Kill said. “But give them credit — they physically keep coming at you ... with those good backs and offensive line and they start wearing you out.”
The “high-energy play” by White came early in the third quarter — a 48-yard bolt straight up the middle to stretch UW’s lead to 24-6. White averaged 11.7 yards per carry and his career average of 6.1 is well ahead of Ron Dayne’s school record of 5.8.
UW had three touchdown runs of 30-plus yards, including a 44-yarder by Ball in the fourth quarter. They helped compensate for a subpar game by quarterback Joel Stave, who completed 7 of 15 passes for 106 yards.
“We knew we had the potential to run the ball like we have in the last couple games,” Groy said. “It’s nice to actually go through it and run like we have.”
Beating the Gophers never gets old for the Badgers, who carried out the postgame ritual of pretending to chop down the goal posts with Paul Bunyan’s Axe with typical exuberance.
Ball and senior cornerback Devin Smith did “rock, paper, scissors” and Smith won, getting to carry it toward the student section.
White got no more than one hand on the Axe but, at that point, was happy to relinquish the starring role to Ball.
“Something you want to be a part of, just an overwhelming experience and something I’ll never forget,” Ball said of his last experience with the Axe. “I wanted to make sure I was going to run around with my teammates and enjoy the moment.”