Nebraska's Rex Burkhead (22)

Nati Harnik, Associated Press

Ball, Burkhead should be at best in B10 title game

  • Article by: ERIC OLSON
  • Associated Press
  • November 28, 2012 - 12:23 AM

LINCOLN, Neb. - Two of the Big Ten's best running backs will be on the field when Wisconsin and No. 14 Nebraska meet in Saturday night's conference championship game.

Wisconsin's Montee Ball has been at his best lately after a slow start.

Nebraska's Rex Burkhead is running strong after missing a month with an aggravated knee sprain.

The two have long admired and learned from each other.

Burkhead said he's studied tape of Ball to cull tips on how to better use his blockers and to see how Ball patiently waits for a hole to open and attacks it.

Ball said he tries to emulate Burkhead's toughness and relentlessness.

"That man, he's a very physical running back," Ball said. "He doesn't shy away from contact. I believe he loves contact. He loves to deliver the blow to defenders. What I take from him is, don't shy from contact and keep your feet churning."

Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist after rushing for 1,923 yards and scoring 39 touchdowns last season, this week earned first-team All-Big Ten honors for the second straight year following a regular season in which he piled up 1,528 yards and 18 TDs.

He scored his 79th career touchdown last week against Penn State to set an NCAA record.

Burkhead was a first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2011 after a 1,357-yard, 15-TD season. He sprained his left knee on his third carry of the opener against Southern Mississippi, has aggravated the injury twice and appeared in only six games. He has 474 yards on 63 carries, a 7.5-yard average.

Burkhead originally planned to return in Indianapolis on Saturday, but the Huskers (10-2, 7-1) needed a boost in the second half against Iowa last week, and he told coach Bo Pelini he was ready when needed.

Burkhead started the third quarter, scored the go-ahead touchdown in a 13-7, Legends Division-clinching victory and finished with 69 yards on 16 carries, including a few pile-moving runs.

Pelini said he expects Burkhead to be in the starting lineup against the Badgers (7-5, 4-4).

Burkhead gives the Huskers relatively fresh legs to go along with 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah and two other backs, who worked as the primary ball-carrier when Burkhead was out.

"I hope it kind of gives a burst of energy to the team, just being able to finish off things, finish off runs, fight for those extra yards and just help out the team however I can," Burkhead said.

Even without Burkhead the Huskers had the most powerful run game in the Big Ten. With him in the mix again as a runner and receiver — and with Abdullah, Braylon Heard and Imani Cross as his backups — offensive coordinator Tim Beck will have plenty of options.

"It's nice just to know he's added back into our arsenal," tight end Ben Cotton said.

Ball and Burkhead played major roles in the teams' first meeting this season, a 30-27 Nebraska win on Sept. 29.

Ball ran 32 times for 90 yards, and he scored the Badgers' first two touchdowns as they got out to a 20-3 lead. Ball scored again in the third quarter, but the Huskers kept him under control most of the second half. Six of his final eight carries went for losses or no gain.

Burkhead had 18 runs for 86 yards, including a 21-yarder. He fumbled on his first carry when he ran up the back of an offensive lineman, setting up the Badgers' second touchdown.

Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, who tackled Burkhead five times in the first game, said Nebraska's offense doesn't change depending on which of the four running backs is in the game. But Burkhead is the toughest to bring down, he said, and is the master of turning a potential tackle for loss or no gain into a 2-yard pickup.

"That doesn't really show up in the stat book," Borland said, "but that kind of saves their offense at times. Sometimes things will be bottled up, and instead of it being second down and 12, it's second and 8, and that changes their play-calling. I really applaud him for his ability in doing that."

Ball, a Doak Walker Award finalist for the second straight year, is running for 153.6 yards a game since Oct. 1. He's run for at least 166 yards in four of his last six games.

The end of his senior season has been better than the start. He missed several days of preseason practice with a concussion and facial cuts after five men attacked him on a street in Madison, Wis.

He was held to 61 yards in a loss to Oregon State, had to run 37 times to get his 139 yards in a narrow win over Utah State and sustained another head injury in the first half against UTEP.

"Yards have been a lot tougher this year," Ball said.

A big performance against Nebraska could help send Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl for a third straight year and ease the sting of a five-loss season. The Badgers, who finished third in the Leaders Division, are in the title game because Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible.

"These five losses, one loss being against Nebraska, we really feel we have something to prove against them and to the nation," Ball said. "I'm hoping the best team comes out winning, which is us."

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