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, Oct. 23, 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."
Contact Jim Polzin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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