MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s offense jogged onto the field for its second series of the third quarter Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium trailing Georgia Southern by a touchdown. Given all the expectations surrounding what the Badgers were supposed to be — and on the heels of a loss at Washington State — it was a moment that figured to serve as an inflection point not only in the game but perhaps even the season.
The same can be said for Badgers running back Braelon Allen.
One week earlier, Allen carried seven times for 20 yards with six receptions for 11 yards. It marked Allen’s fewest carries in a game since he became a regular part of the running backs rotation midway through his freshman season in 2021. For a player who believed he was among the best running backs in the country, it was nowhere near what Allen expected. So, he told coaches on Sunday that he wanted the ball more.
Now here Allen stood during the third quarter, in the backfield waiting for center Tanor Bortolini’s shotgun snap to quarterback Tanner Mordecai, with an equally unassuming stat line: four rushes for 16 yards, two catches for 5 yards.
If Allen was disappointed in himself or the game plan, he certainly didn’t show it. He ran up the middle for a 6-yard gain. On the next play, he squeezed through a hole around the right side, escaped a shoestring tackle attempt and burst down the sideline for 32 yards. Three plays later, he scored the tying touchdown.
And just like that, the Badgers and Allen had resurrected themselves.
Allen would finish with 12 carries for 94 yards and two touchdowns during Wisconsin’s 35-14 victory against Georgia Southern. And while Allen has produced better games during his stellar career, this one demonstrated a layer of mental and physical toughness that stood out.
Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell acknowledged that Allen “got dinged up” during the week of practice. Allen wouldn’t divulge details of the injury but said afterward that he genuinely didn’t know whether he would be able to play. When was he certain?
“After my first couple plays, honestly,” Allen said.
Allen’s injury status likely contributed significantly to Chez Mellusi earning his first start in two seasons. Mellusi, who carried 15 times for 61 yards with a touchdown, said he didn’t learn of the change until Friday. Seven minutes of game clock passed before Allen even earned a touch — a 4-yard reception. Twenty-three minutes of game clock passed before Allen earned a rushing attempt — a 1-yard gain.
But when it mattered, Allen was there to send a surge through the stadium and prove why he is capable of being dynamic with the ball in his hands.
“You can always count on zero to make some plays,” Badgers receiver Chimere Dike said, referring to Allen’s jersey number.
Added Mordecai: “It’s contagious when everyone does their job. And you let someone like Braelon get into open space, good things happen.”
choo chooooo 🚂
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) September 16, 2023
Allen entered the season with 2,510 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns in his two-year career. His vision for his junior campaign was to showcase his versatility and put himself in a position to declare for the NFL Draft after the season. That very well could still come to fruition. But it is clear that Wisconsin is still attempting to strike a balance with how it utilizes Allen and the rest of its playmakers.
The offense has drastically changed under offensive coordinator Phil Longo, who implemented an Air Raid passing approach. With Mellusi taking carries and Mordecai throwing the ball Saturday to eight different players, Allen’s workload is different from what it was a year ago under the previous coaching staff. Allen leads the team with 15 receptions, but those catches have gone for a total of 41 yards.
Fickell made it clear earlier in the week that while Allen wanted the ball more, he also needed to do more with his opportunities. He reiterated that thought process after the game.
“The great thing about Braelon is he is an unselfish kid,” Fickell said. “He wants it more. We all know that. I want more wins, right? We all have a selfish nature to us. But the key is can we not let it override us with what’s best for the team and recognize what’s best for the team?
“We all feel the same way. That’s what’s great about it. … We can sit in a room with the whole staff offensively, and we all feel the exact same way. But we’ve got to find greater ways to be able to do that, to get him involved, to get that energy, that multiplier. But sometimes you have to be able to take what people will give you. He’s gotten a lot of attention, not just from the media. He’s gotten a lot of attention from other people’s defenses, and that makes it a little bit more difficult.”
Allen said he had “a difficult week” and noted that he leaned on his faith to help him through it. Allen did divulge that he sustained an injury on a play during Wisconsin’s season opener against Buffalo. Although he described it as “nothing serious,” he brought up that injury when talking to coaches on Sunday because he wondered whether it contributed to the game plan against Washington State and how it would impact his role.
“Obviously, conversations were had about the game last week,” Allen said. “I thought there was great communication between me, coach Fick, coach Longo and (running backs) coach (Devon) Spalding. My thought that I brought to them was do they have the confidence in me, regardless if I’m 100 percent or not?
“They made it completely clear that’s not the case at all. They have 100 percent full confidence in me and obviously I do in myself, too. I just wanted to make sure that it wasn’t anything like that because I always want to have a big impact on the game. So just that communication helped us to play better today.”
Fickell said that it’s difficult for the offense to gain energy from 2-yard runs, even though those body blows can wear down opponents. But he said the 6- to 8-yard runs that Allen provided helped the team to feel a much-needed spark.
Allen flashed his talent again later during the third quarter Saturday on a drive that helped to put the game away. He carried on each of Wisconsin’s first three plays, gaining 15, 8 and 4 yards to pick up a pair of first downs. He ran up the middle for 7 yards and then scored on a 2-yard run to give Wisconsin a 28-14 lead.
“I just want to show coach Longo, ‘Let me get in the game,’” Allen said. “Just getting up, getting back to the line of scrimmage and telling him to give me the ball. I think that’s definitely energizing for not just me but the entire team.”
Allen’s injury history is worth considering when coaches attempt to determine his workload. He missed a game in each of the past two seasons while battling injuries and has absorbed a pounding late in both campaigns. Bortolini said that taking the ball out of Allen’s hands to find other playmakers was part of the new offense and could have long-term benefits.
“It’s a good thing where we don’t need you to carry the ball 25 times a game and get banged up by Week 7 and you feel like you can’t do what you did in Week 1,” Bortolini said. “So I think it’s kind of good to not have him take such a huge workload, but it still allows him to be successful, be explosive. If we can just do that consistently throughout a game, we’ll be in a really good spot.”
Wisconsin has much to clean up with its Big Ten opener at Purdue looming next Friday. Allen’s usage figures to evolve based on his health and what defenses present to the Badgers. But on Saturday, Allen reminded coaches and himself what he can offer.
“I always want to be my best for the team, regardless of if that’s in the first quarter, first play or I don’t get going until the fourth quarter,” Allen said. “I always want to play my best regardless of how many opportunities I get. I’m glad we had a good win today. Obviously, that’s the main goal.”
(Photo: John Fisher / Getty Images)