WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The University of Wisconsin football team won a game while only attempting eight passes and seemed pretty proud of it afterward.
“That’s our bread and butter,” tailback Chez Mellusi said, “and I think that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
That line was heard over and over outside the visiting locker room at Ross-Ade Stadium following the Badgers’ 30-13 victory over No. 25 Purdue on Saturday afternoon, probably because it had been used so much during and after the game that it had become a chorus of sorts.
“Once we knew we were hitting that stuff,” tight end Jake Ferguson said after UW rushed for 290 yards on 51 attempts, “don’t fix what isn’t broken.”
The thing is, it wasn’t long ago that this running game was broken. It was a shell of its former self as the Badgers stumbled to a 1-3 start this season, with UW looking nothing like teams of old that wore down opponents simply by bullying them.
It’s too early to say it’s fixed completely, but the Badgers rushed for 391 yards two weeks ago at Illinois and were closing in on 300 against the Boilermakers until quarterback Graham Mertz ended the game with three kneel-downs that generated a combined minus-7 yards.
“We’re starting to get back to our brand of football,” freshman tailback Braelon Allen said after UW ended an eight-game losing streak to ranked opponents. “Wisconsin’s known for running the ball over and over and over and just imposing our will on defenses. Getting back to that is really cool for us.”
It’s especially cool for Allen and Mellusi, who combined for 289 yards. They are survivors in a running back room that has been depleted by departures, and they seem to get a kick out of picking up where the other left off.
Allen had a 70-yard run to open UW’s second series of the third quarter, a play that began in the shadows of the Purdue end zone and, as it turned out, gave the Badgers momentum they’d never lose.
Mellusi finished the drive and broke a 13-13 tie with a 20-yard touchdown run two plays later that could have been a 4-yard loss had he not made a Purdue defender miss in the backfield.
“I think we complement each other really well,” Allen said. “He punched in my long run, I punched in his long run.”
Allen returned the favor two series later after Mellusi’s 35-yard dash gave the Badgers a red-zone opportunity. Allen ran for 5 yards on the next play before giving UW a two-score lead with a 14-yard touchdown run.
Mellusi finished the day with 149 yards on 27 carries, while Allen had 140 on 12 attempts.
“I’m going to say it,” Mellusi said, “I think we’re the best duo in the country.”
Allen’s carry count will increase when he proves he can be trusted to hold onto the ball. He fumbled twice in the first half, with Purdue recovering one of those miscues, and went a long time without carries as the UW coaches chose to keep feeding the more dependable Mellusi.
Badgers running backs coach Gary Brown told Allen to calm down. One by one, Allen’s teammates came over to him on the sidelines and offered words of encouragement.
“It’s football, things like that happen,” Mellusi said. “I can’t let him get down on himself. You’re not allowed to get down on yourself.”
Allen, meanwhile, sat on the bench and dug deep in his memory bank. He was 10 years old when his favorite college football player, Melvin Gordon, lost two fumbles during the first half of a 2014 game against Nebraska. Not only did Gordon bounce back from those errors, he ended up producing the best game of his life and finished with a program-record 408 yards rushing against the Cornhuskers.
That was all the motivation Allen needed.
“I knew that I had to reset,” Allen said, “and once I got back in the game and got my opportunity again, I had to make the most of it.”
After not touching the ball for UW’s final two drives of the first half and its opening series in the second half, Allen finally got that opportunity when UW took over at its own 6-yard line midway through the third quarter. He sprinted around the right side of UW’s line and raced up the sidelines for the team’s second-longest gain of the season.
What did Allen see?
“Green grass, really,” he said. “The line opened up some huge holes for me. All I had to do was run.”
Both Allen and Mellusi were quick to credit an offensive line that has shown massive improvement since a home loss to Michigan earlier this month. That group was ticked off in the first half after UW had to settle for a field goal after taking over at the Purdue 1 following an interception — Mellusi was stuffed on back-to-back runs and Kendric Pryor lost 3 yards on a jet weep — but it gathered on the sideline and decided enough was enough before taking out its frustration on the Boilermakers.
“Running the ball is an 11-guy effort,” senior offensive lineman Logan Bruss said, “and I just think we’ve done a better job coming together as an offense.”
That meant putting the ball in the air only eight times Saturday, and if that has to be UW’s identity the rest of the way, so be it. Even Ferguson, who had just two passes come his way Saturday, is fine with that.
“I take pride in winning,” he said, “that’s all.”
Badgers fans on Twitter have new hope — and lingering skepticism — after Wisconsin puts Purdue in check
Full speed aheadUpdated
Run Bucky run! Nice to see RB U doing what it does best. How about that defense too !— Dennis Semrau (@DennisSemrau) October 23, 2021
Hold on now!Updated
Keeping 'em on their toesUpdated
This offensive scheme will beat the very good/league teams. They brought back the successful unbalance and Paul Chryst definitely has the intellect, innovation, creativity and passion to run a unbalanced offense when necessary. Great coached game.— No Más 🦡 (@JoRy_MaMa) October 23, 2021
So close, yet so farUpdated
We are a perfectly decent team so long as the defense forces turnovers and our passing game is unnecessary. But the inability to pound the ball in from the 1 at the end of the first half is concerning.— Craig Smith (@smithcp1) October 23, 2021
It checks outUpdated
Where would the Badgers be without Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonard? This team needs to eliminate turnovers and penalties. The formula to compete for the Western Division Title? Run the ball, play suffocating defense, and keep QB Graham Mertz from losing the game.— Jeff Ostach (@jeff_ostach) October 23, 2021
Just what the doctor orderedUpdated
Felt good— Manu Raju (@mkraju) October 23, 2021
Know when to delegateUpdated
Looks like a Wisconsin O but Paul needs to hire a QB coach— Fred Ehle (@FredEhle) October 23, 2021
Sure, let's go with 'different'Updated
IF all the offense is run game, why have #5 on the field at all? How bout putting one of the unused WRs at wildcat QB? Would that be worse, better, or at least different?— Fletcher Keyes (@FletcherKeyes) October 23, 2021
Three steps to successUpdated
Reduce TO, develop a short passing game (at least 15-20 passes per game) and help the OT’s with chip blocking on obvious passing downs— Wayne Horman (@wayne_horman) October 23, 2021
Woulda won by 40 if the offense could hold onto the ball.— Nicholas~Bucks in 6 (@Nicholaswisco) October 23, 2021
How long has it been?Updated
The first vintage Badger game in a long time. If not for the 2 turnovers it could’ve been a shutout.— Kurt Sagendorph (@ksagendo) October 23, 2021
It's a numbers gameUpdated
Pumped for the W. Just wish that H2 offense (no TOs, dominant running game) was the every game offense. D is INCREDIBLE. Worried Iowa might cause 5-10 turnovers next week…— Mark Wolfgram (@markwwolfgram) October 23, 2021
How sweet it isUpdated
It was really fun to watch!— chris van wagner (@CVWhoops) October 23, 2021
Only a matter of timeUpdated
Do what you do best, but at some point we're going to have to throw the ball effectively.— Robert Burtch (@rlburtch) October 23, 2021
Our defense is Superman and our offense is Jimmy Olsen. The lack of a dedicated offensive coordinator is a glaring problem. Beach should not be starting. Beyond that, I'm heartened to see the continued emergence of Allen (despite fumbles today)— MK (@Mike_Kowieski) October 23, 2021
Split the differenceUpdated
Glass half full: D was again magnificent and we had a solid run game. Beat a “ranked” opponent on the road.— Russ Evansen (@waunaruss) October 23, 2021
Glass half empty: We have a QB who cannot throw and I wouldn’t blame them if every WR on the team entered the portal.
Praise Jimmy and that D. 8 passes, 0 yards in 2nd half. 1/11 on 3rd down. Chryst really needs a new offensive coordinator. Mertz is made for shot gun, can see the field better— ChazB (@chazb33) October 23, 2021
The fine taste of victoryUpdated
I think I will have a Boilermaker to celebrate. Purdue a Top 25 power was shut down and Badger continue to roll over ranked opponents.nothing new for this program.— mike kerry (@BadgerMike) October 23, 2021
Moving in the right directionUpdated
Felt like a typical Badger game for a change. Clean up the turnovers and penalties.— Kevin (@dcbadger7) October 23, 2021
Still not soldUpdated
A shame a defense this solid is being wasted this year. If they can run like that again next week, I’ll start buying into the no passing philosophy. For now, not holding my breath…— C.J. Boehler (@CJBoehler) October 23, 2021
Take what you can getUpdated
Happy for the W on the road.— Stephanie Kowalski (@sdkowalski1) October 23, 2021
Flipping the switchUpdated
Wow. Completely different team. Great to win that turnover battle!— EJ Temme (@ej_temme) October 23, 2021
Best of the bunchUpdated
Good 2021 UW win. Mertz took what was there except for 1 play and the defense was ludicrous. O line leaned on ppl for days— Ben Moser (@TheMrMoser) October 23, 2021
And on that one ...Updated
Purdon't— Corey Otis (@CoreyWOtis) October 23, 2021