WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Several members of the Wisconsin football team stood in a tunnel next to the Ross-Ade Stadium field Friday to answer questions from reporters after a 38-17 victory over Purdue. There were smiles on a performance that put the Badgers on track to open Big Ten play. But even after a big win, it was hard to ignore a big loss for the program.
As the interviews concluded, running back Chez Mellusi emerged from the team locker room on crutches with a gray boot on his left leg. A white towel covered his head. He stared straight toward the team bus as players’ family members leaned against the fence and clapped, a somber salute to a fallen teammate.
Mellusi, a dynamic fifth-year senior in the midst of a strong start to the season, suffered what appeared to be a serious left leg injury with 6:37 to play. Purdue outside linebacker Kydran Jenkins tackled Mellusi for a 1-yard loss on second-and-10 near midfield, and Jenkins’ body weight landed on Mellusi’s leg. The coaches quickly sprung into action and Mellusi was eventually carted off the field while the entire Wisconsin team surrounded him.
“I don’t know exactly what the deal is,” Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell said. “I don’t know if it looks good. They are in pain in there. If we lose him for a while, it will be hard.
“He’s not just a great football player for us. He’s not just a great defender. He’s kind of the heart and soul of some of the things we do because of everything he’s been through, all the ups and downs and the hurts. To have the attitude he has, he plays an important role. If he can’t play for a while, he will still play a very important role in what we do.
Mellusi, who arrived from Clemson in 2021, immediately earned the starting running back role at Wisconsin. He suffered a season-ending left ACL tear late in that campaign, but returned in time to open the 2022 season and win races alongside defender Braelon Allen. Mellusi missed four games midseason with a broken arm and opted to return to Wisconsin for a fifth season because he believed his talent would fit well into new offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s system.
Mellusi looked perhaps as good to start this season as he had at any time since arriving at Wisconsin. His speed and explosiveness made him a valuable weapon for Longo and complemented Allen’s deadlier running style nicely to make him one of the best 1-2 tailback combinations in the country. Mellusi’s 89-yard touchdown run in the opener against Buffalo showcased his skills. Mellusi has 51 carries for 307 yards with four touchdowns, averaging 6 yards per rushing attempt.
Mellusi’s injury was too shocking and too fresh Friday night for Fickell or his players to fully understand what it means long-term beyond prayers for Mellusi and his family. Allen, who had become close to Mellusi, was so upset by the injury that he did not speak to reporters after the game. Allen carried 16 times for 116 yards with two touchdowns. But now Wisconsin faces the very real challenge of trying to succeed without Mellusi.
“The guys in the locker room are going to rally behind him,” Badgers receiver Chimere Dike said. “He means so much to this team. Ultimately, we must respond. I don’t really have any answers to this question at the moment.
Fickell said before the season started that he wanted to try to limit Allen’s rushing attempts in an effort to preserve his health for the season. Fickell described Allen’s perfect game as carrying 18 times for 140 yards. Allen has struggled with injuries in each of his first three seasons, including earlier this month when he said he wasn’t sure if he would be able to play against Georgia Southern due to an illness. disclosed.
Allen’s workload increased significantly over the past two seasons when Mellusi was out. Allen averaged 23.3 carries in Wisconsin’s final four games of the 2021 season, including 29 rushing attempts in the Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona State. He averaged 21.5 rushing attempts in four games last season when Mellusi was recovering from his broken arm. In both seasons, Allen seemed to burn out from the physical toll, and he even missed Wisconsin’s regular-season finale against Minnesota last year.
If Wisconsin does not choose to increase Allen’s workload, the carries will fall to either Jackson Acker or Cade Yacamelli. At least one of them will be forced to play a bigger role. Acker has played 16 offensive snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus. He has eight rushing attempts for 31 yards. Acker was a reserve running back as a true freshman in 2021 and played fullback last season before returning to running back this season as the offense phased out fullbacks.
Yacamelli, meanwhile, has yet to play an offensive game. He played 16 snaps on special teams this season. He showed impressive speed and power in open practices, but that came while facing Wisconsin’s defensive reserves.
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“They’re both big, physical guys,” Fickell said. “Obviously, Cade is a guy you’ve seen around here a little bit. I think early in the season a lot of people were talking about him as the next guy when those two guys (Allen and Mellusi) were maybe gone. He will therefore have many more opportunities to do so. He’s just more of a special teams guy right now.
“Jackson Acker is a guy who has played everywhere. When we arrived we didn’t know what it was going to be like. Was he going to become a fullback when maybe you didn’t have as many? Was he going to be a tight end? Was he going to move back to wide receiver? Hell, we talked about moving him on defense. Not really. They didn’t let us do it. But I think he’s a guy who, throughout fall camp, has really honed his skills as a running back, and I think we’ll see a lot more of that.
Mellusi did so many little things to help the Wisconsin team. Two plays before his injury Friday night, Mellusi produced an exceptional blitz in which he fell across the formation to knock Purdue defensive back Sanoussi Kane to the ground. That block allowed quarterback Tanner Mordecai to complete a 15-yard pass to Dike on third-and-6 and keep the drive alive. Then came the carry that shook the Badgers.
“It was terrible to see,” Mordecai said. “Especially for someone who puts so much heart and soul into this game. Our prayers are with him.” We think of him. It was terrible to see. I do not know what to say.
Wisconsin’s offense against Purdue finally started to look more like the version many people had been so excited to see. The Badgers (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) moved the ball with ease in the first half, scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions to take a 21-3 lead. Mellusi was central to that success, hauling in an 11-yard run two plays before Wisconsin’s first touchdown and converting two third downs on the Badgers’ third touchdown.
After the game, safety Hunter Wohler said he didn’t believe many teams in the country could stop Wisconsin when the Badgers were playing this type of complementary football. Dike called the team “dangerous” because of the number of offensive weapons Wisconsin has.
But there could be one less weapon in the near future. And, once the understandable emotions of the moment dissipate, the Badgers will have to figure out how to continue to achieve their championship goals.
(Top photo: Brian Spurlock / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)