Isaac Guerendo found a silver lining through another injury-hampered season.
The running back suffered a Lisfranc injury prior to the Badgers’ road win at Illinois in early October, cutting short a solid start to his fourth season in the program. His position mate, Chez Mellusi, went down with a season-ending ACL tear four weeks later against Rutgers.
The time away from the field allowed the two to grow closer, however, and Guerendo feels they became “the older guys” for then-true freshman Braelon Allen.
“But I've said this plenty of times before, but without the injury, as bad as it was, being able to build that bond with Chez, I don't know if it would be there had we not been there for each other throughout that whole process,” Guerendo said.
“So being there for Braelon, too, just kind of coaching from the sidelines as much as we can post-game, after he had a heck of a season obviously. But being able to build that bond through that is something that we’ve enjoyed.”
UW needed to ride the 17-year-old Allen in the running game with Guerendo and Mellusi out for the final four games of the 2021 season, but the trio of backs thrived against an overmatched New Mexico State team last weekend. They combined for 231 yards and six touchdowns on 37 carries in the 66-7 thumping of the Aggies, and their presence will be needed against a revamped Ohio State defense Saturday inside Ohio Stadium (6:30 p.m., ABC).
Mellusi believes that’s a glimpse of what they can provide for this offense.
“We envisioned that for a long time,” Mellusi said. “But that was just kind of the first game that we kind of put it all together. And I think from here on out, I think that's going to be the plan.”
Allen started the scoring with a 39-yard yard scamper on the first drive of the game to give UW a lead it would never relinquish. The sophomore finished with 86 yards on 15 carries and added two more scores in the second quarter.
Mellusi added a 2-yard touchdown early in the second quarter, his first since the win at Rutgers last November, on his way to 71 yards on 10 carries. Guerendo contributed 74 yards and two scores on 12 attempts. Those scores came in the third quarter with the game well in hand, but all three contributed in the nonconference finale as early as the first quarter.
Mellusi accumulated two 16-yard runs while Guerendo ripped off a 17-yard gain on the Badgers’ second touchdown drive that started at the end of the first quarter. Having multiple options that feed off of each other's success can make this evolving UW offense even better.
“If I need a rest and you got another guy, two more guys, three more guys, that can just hop in and pick up where you left off, being able to trust in those guys, it helps us a lot,” Allen said.
All three backs also bring something a little different to the Badgers backfield in a complementary nature. Previous combinations of UW players at the position group, each with their own gifts, have thrived and elevated the offensive unit. John Clay, Montee Ball and James White ran for 3,060 combined yards with 46 rushing touchdowns in 2010. Ball, White and Melvin Gordon ran for 3,257 yards and 37 scores on the ground two seasons later.
“Braelon being the big strong guy that he is, he's just a heck of a runner,” Guerendo said. “He's not easy to take down, so I think that's definitely something he uses to his advantage.
“And then Chez, the way he runs behind his pads. He's a very powerful runner, so him using that obviously to an advantage. Whenever I can get out in space and use my speed, that's something that I like to do.”
That ability to feed off of one another is not necessarily always present, according to Mellusi, who transferred to UW from Clemson last June.
“Maybe at other schools, you don't necessarily have the opportunities,” Mellusi said. “When you have a three-, four-deep room, that third or fourth guy might not get any carries.
“Here, you can see, you can get carries here. So that's one of those things where I think everyone has an opportunity, you’ve just got to make the best of them.”
The group trusts one another to provide feedback. Guerendo explained how Allen gets a feel for the run game at the start, but the others watch on the sideline and discuss with each other and the coaching staff what they believe can work.
That includes giving constructive criticism as well.
“Chez, I had a run that I kind of cut it back, and he's like, ‘If you kept it front side, you probably could have hit the outside,’” Allen said. “... I watched it and probably could have. So it’s just having trust in those guys that know what they're talking about definitely helps.”
UW coach Paul Chryst believes the three backs will assist one another whenever possible.
“I think all three are different, and I think they recognize that and kind of value that,” Chryst said. “And I think all three realize too that when all three of them are on, we're a better team.”
Photos: Wisconsin routs New Mexico State at Camp Randall Stadium
Wisconsin's Chez Mellusi celebrates his touchdown run against New Mexico State on Saturday at Camp Randall. The Badgers' three running backs combined for 231 yards and six touchdowns on 37 carries in the 66-7 win over the Aggies.