By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Sep 17, 2012 at 11:17 AM

In January, Madison rejoiced.

Montee Ball was coming back.

Outside of University of Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley, there was perhaps no more celebrated back to school announcement in the country, and with good reason. Ball was otherworldly in 2011 for the Wisconsin Badgers, rushing for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns for the Big Ten champions.

To recap:

  1. Heisman Trophy finalist
  2. Consensus first-team All-American
  3. Finalist for Doak Walker Award
  4. Graham-George Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year
  5. Ameche-Dayne Big Ten Running Back of the Year
  6. Winner of Chicago Tribune Silver Football
  7. Won the Archie Griffin and Jim Brown Awards from the Touchdown Club of Columbus
  8. Unanimous, consensus first-team All-Big Ten
  9. Jimmy Demetral Team MVP

Naturally, a junior coming off such an eye-popping campaign is headed straight to the NFL. Some prognosticators had him sneaking up until the end of the first round but Ball based his decision to return largely due to the NFL draft advisory board assigning him a third round grade.

There were many positive things Ball could still accomplish. Another monster season perhaps moves him up solidly into the first or second round. He would likely set the NCAA career record for touchdowns, needing just 16 more to do so. He could win the Heisman. And, the Badgers could make a run at not only another Big Ten title, but perhaps a BCS National Championship.

Unfortunately, the 2012 campaign has been nothing short of a disaster for the senior.

First, he was ticketed for trespassing during a Madison block party in the summer. Then he was assaulted by five men in early August, resulting in a concussion.

Football would be the saving grace, right? Not so much. The Badgers eked out a win over Northern Iowa in Week 1, with ball rushing for 120 very hard fought yards and just one score. Week 2 was a debacle at Oregon State, a 10-7 loss where Ball was contained to just 61 yards.

That brings us to Saturday.

A win is a win, but it was just as uninspiring as the first two weeks after Utah State missed a potential game-winning field goal in the final seconds. It was no better for Ball, either. He rushed for 139 yards and a score, but it took 37 carries.

His longest run of the year is just 17 yards and he's averaging 3.8 yards per carry (320 yards on 84 carries) to go with just two scores. He has seven catches for 49 yards, as well.

"I thought the defense played well tonight on a tremendous running back," Utah State coach Gary Andersen said. "They give him the ball a lot, and they should give him the ball a lot, and I'm sure they will continue to give him the ball a lot. He seems like a great kid and he got some yards, but I thought we were physical with him at the point of attack for the most part and I think we were able to control the offensive line."

This year couldn't be going any worse for Ball, and he may be losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each week.

Ball is averaging 28 carries per game, and had to go well over 30 in two contests against the so-called patsies of the Badgers' schedule. What will happen once they get into the Big Ten? While the conference is clearly down, it's not like he'll be able to run for 140 yards on 18 carries – he's going to have to continually take a pounding.

When you're a running back, that is not a good thing.

Through Saturday, Ball has carried the rock 662 times for 3,630 yards. He has one very public concussion out there, and who knows how many others we don't know about. There will be character questions asked about him in the next evaluation process that maybe weren't there before. Maybe some NFL evaluators will wonder if what he did last year had more to do with the presence of quarterback Russell Wilson, now the Seattle Seahawks starter.

Whether athletes should stay in college for their junior or senior campaigns is always one of the hottest debates in every post season.

The way Ball's senior season is going, it should put to rest such arguments going forward.

Football is a violent game, we know, but more and more proof is out there showing how dangerous it truly is to those who play it. Your draft stock may not be where you think it should, but right now Ball could be making six figures and either splitting time with a veteran running back, or perhaps have won a job in camp like his former teammate in Wilson.

Then, in two years, you hold out for the big payday. And, you'll probably get it. It is how football works. Now, he has a much further rope to climb to get to that point.

Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.

A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.

To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.

Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining

In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.

Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.