- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio features the FBS all-time touchdown king and the leading rusher in Stanford history. Running backs Montee Ball and Stepfan Taylor undoubtedly command the lion's share of the attention from each defense.
Yet neither star may be getting enough attention from the public at large.
That's a strange thing to say about the 2012 Doak Walker Award winner (Wisconsin's Ball) and a three-year starter playing in his second straight BCS game (the Cardinal's Taylor). But are we sure we truly appreciate the accomplishments of both men?
Ball has received plenty of acclaim for his record 82 career touchdowns (76 of them rushing, also a record). Still, he'll end his career having never finished higher than fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting (2011), something future college football historians may have trouble believing. After a slow start this year that was due in part to a preseason assault and a struggling offensive line, Ball was labeled by some as a major disappointment. Such a claim looks ludicrous now for a player who rushed for 1,730 yards and 21 touchdowns.
There are critics who will always be leery of a Wisconsin running back's numbers, believing they are merely a product of the Badgers' powerful offensive line opening massive holes that any decent athlete could run through. In some ways, then, Ball had a better season this year than in 2011, when he led the nation in rushing and tied an FBS record with 39 touchdowns. His running lanes were smaller, and he concentrated more on creating yards after contact.
"The thing that makes Montee so special is that he attacks the line of scrimmage," Wisconsin offensive line coach Bart Miller said. "He gets the ball and runs with fire. He runs the way we play offensive line, and guys love that. We don't want a guy who tiptoes along the line of scrimmage. We want a guy who attacks it, runs a guy over, makes him miss. All those kinds of things are what Montee does."
If Ball is underappreciated, then Taylor is criminally undervalued. He was overshadowed in his own backfield the past couple of years by Andrew Luck. This season, he carried the offense at times as it went through the post-Luck transition and reworked its offensive line, finishing with 1,442 yards and 12 touchdowns. But he had a hard time gaining notice even in his own conference, as the Pac-12 had other outstanding running backs such as UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, Oregon's Kenjon Barner and Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey.
Franklin and Barner joined Ball as Doak Walker finalists, while Taylor got shut out. As fate would have it, Taylor will finish his career going head-to-head against those three finalists in his final four games (Stanford played UCLA twice). He outgained Barner 161-66 in the win over Oregon. He had 142 yards to Franklin's 65 in the first UCLA game, though Franklin ran for 194 to Taylor's 78 in the Pac-12 title game. More important, the Cardinal won both meetings.
"Stepfan is the kind of guy who would say he doesn't even know who's up for those awards," Stanford running backs coach Mike Sanford said. "But I remind him."
The Cardinal bill Taylor as "the most complete back in America," one who never comes off the field and who excels in pass protection and blocking as well as carrying the ball. Sanford points out that Taylor has fumbled only twice in 340 touches this season. The Cardinal pride themselves on being a physical team, and Taylor helps give them that identity on offense.
"He's the steady rock for us," Sanford said. "Even if things weren't flowing early in the season, we knew he'd be able to almost will himself to keep the chains moving. Very few backs in college football are as well-rounded as him."
Ball and Taylor share much in common. They're each listed at 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds. They're both workhorses -- Ball leads all active FBS players with 900 career carries, while Taylor ranks third with 823.
"When you talk about Montee Ball, you're talking about one of the best in the country," Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said. "He's got speed, size and great vision. Very much like Stepfan Taylor."
Both will be the undisputed stars of this Rose Bowl. And both deserve every bit of the spotlight.