Ball, Burkhead should be at best in B10 title contest

By Eric Olson | Associated Press Published:

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. Burkhead had 18 runs for 86 yards, including a 21-yarder.

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