WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Several members of Wisconsin’s football team stood in a tunnel next to the field on Friday at Ross-Ade Stadium answering questions from reporters following a 38-17 victory against Purdue. There were smiles about a performance that put the Badgers on the right path to open Big Ten play. But even in the aftermath of a big win, it was hard to ignore a big loss for the program.
As interviews wrapped up, running back Chez Mellusi emerged from the team locker room on crutches with a gray boot over his left leg. A white towel covered his head. He stared straight toward the team bus while family members of players leaned against the fence and applauded, a somber salute to a fallen teammate.
Mellusi, a dynamic fifth-year senior in the midst of an excellent start to the season, sustained what appeared to be a serious left leg injury with 6:37 remaining in the game. 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. Trainers quickly sprinted into action, and Mellusi ultimately was carted off the field while Wisconsin’s entire team surrounded him.
“I don’t know exactly what the deal is,” Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell said. “I don’t know that it looks good. They’re hurting in there. If we lose him for a while, it’ll be tough.
“He’s not just a great football player for us. He’s not just a great tailback. He’s a bit of the heart and soul of some of the things that we do because of all the things he’s gone through, all the ups and downs and the injuries. To have the attitude that he has, he’s a big part. If he can’t play for a while, he’ll still be a really big part of what it is that we do.”
Mellusi, who arrived as a transfer from Clemson in 2021, earned the starting running back role at Wisconsin immediately. He sustained a season-ending left ACL tear late in that campaign but returned in time to open the 2022 season and earn carries alongside tailback Braelon Allen. Mellusi missed four games at midseason with a broken arm and opted to return to Wisconsin for a fifth season because he believed his talent would perfectly mesh with new offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s system.
Mellusi looked perhaps as good to start this season as he had at any point since arriving at Wisconsin. His speed and explosiveness made him a valuable weapon for Longo and nicely complemented Allen’s more bruising running style to make them one of the best 1-2 tailback combinations in the country. Mellusi’s 89-yard touchdown run in the first game against Buffalo highlighted his skill. Mellusi has 51 carries for 307 yards with four touchdowns, averaging 6 yards per rushing attempt.
Mellusi’s injury was too jarring and too fresh Friday night for Fickell or his players to fully process what it means for the long term beyond prayers for Mellusi and his family. Allen, who had grown close with Mellusi, was so shaken up about 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. At the end of the day, we have to respond. I don’t really have any answers for that right now.”
Fickell said before the season began that he wanted to try and limit Allen’s rushing attempts in an effort to preserve his health for the season. Fickell described the perfect game from Allen as carrying 18 times for 140 yards. Allen has battled injuries in each of his first three seasons, including earlier this month, when he said he wasn’t sure whether he would play against Georgia Southern due to an undisclosed ailment.
Allen’s workload substantially increased 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 during four games last season when Mellusi was recovering from his broken arm. In both seasons, Allen appeared to wear down from the physical toll, and he even missed Wisconsin’s regular-season finale against Minnesota last year.
If Wisconsin doesn’t choose to increase Allen’s workload, the carries will fall on either Jackson Acker or Cade Yacamelli. At least one of them will be forced to play a more significant 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 with the offense phasing out fullbacks.
Yacamelli, meanwhile, has yet to play an offensive snap. He has played 16 snaps on special teams this season. He showcased impressive speed and power during open practices, but that came while matching up against Wisconsin’s defensive reserves.
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“They’re both big and physical guys,” Fickell said. “Obviously, Cade is a guy that you’ve seen a little bit around here. I think that going into the season a lot of people were talking about him being the next guy when these two guys (Allen and Mellusi) maybe were gone. So he’s going to get a lot more opportunities to do it. He’s just been more of a special teams guy right now.
“Jackson Acker’s been a guy that’s played all over the place. When we came in, we didn’t know what he was going to be. Was he going to be a fullback that maybe you didn’t have as much? Was he going to be a tight end? Was he going to move back into the wide receiver spot? Heck, we talked about moving him over to defense. Not really. They wouldn’t let us. But I think he’s a guy that through all of fall camp has really kind of honed his running back skills, and I think we’ll see a lot more of him.”
Mellusi did so many little things to help Wisconsin’s team. Two plays before his injury Friday night, Mellusi had an outstanding blitz pickup in which he came 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 rocked the Badgers.
“It was terrible to see,” Mordecai said. “Especially to someone that puts this much heart and soul into this game. Our prayers are with him. We’re thinking about him. That was terrible to see. I don’t know what to say.”
Wisconsin’s offense against Purdue finally began 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 during the first half, scoring touchdowns on their opening three possessions to take a commanding 21-3 lead. Mellusi was right in the thick of that success, picking up an 11-yard run two plays before Wisconsin’s first touchdown and converting a pair of 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 play that type of complementary football. Dike called the team “dangerous” because of how many offensive weapons are at Wisconsin’s disposal.
But there could be one fewer weapon for the foreseeable future. And, once the understandable emotions of the moment wear off, the Badgers will have to figure out how to carry on to achieve their championship goals.
(Top photo: Brian Spurlock / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)