It doesn’t seem to faze Braelon Allen the same way it does people outside the University of Wisconsin football program.
Allen, who’s 17 years old, should be leading the Fond du Lac High School football team into the WIAA playoffs this weekend as a star on both sides of the ball. The tailback instead has become arguably the most impactful player on the Badgers’ offense over the past two weeks.
“I didn’t know how quickly I was going to pick up the playbook, pick up the speed of the game or anything like that,” Allen said this week. “I was confident that when I got my shot that I was going to make an impact, but probably not this early. So it’s cool to see it all happening.”
The reigning Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Week has put together back-to-back games with more than 100 yards rushing and he likely will need a third on Saturday at No. 25 Purdue (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) to keep UW (3-3, 1-2) on track after two consecutive wins.
This is a big moment for the Badgers, who have a chance to resurrect what once appeared to be a lost season. It’s also a big moment for Allen, whose raw physical tools have allowed him to contribute while still learning the intricacies of being a running back. His size, strength and power often are marveled at, but they’ve served an important role in him being ready to handle what’s become essentially a 50-50 workload split in the backfield with junior Chez Mellusi.
“It doesn’t matter how much older these guys are,” Allen said, “I know they’re not stronger than me.”
Allen is up to 289 yards and three touchdowns on 46 carries, and his 6.3 yards per carry leads UW’s active running backs.
These are the moments Allen wanted to be in when he chose to reclassify from the 2022 class and enroll at UW this fall. He said he was simply over high school, and he embraced the idea of completing a mountain of schoolwork this spring and summer on top of his high-level physical training to be able to join the Badgers this season.
The jump to college, his growing role and the increasing attention paid to him haven’t seemed to affect him. The way he views it, this is what he asked for.
“I think (he) certainly came in with intentions of, and the confidence maybe that, ‘I can help this. I’m here to play,’” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “And yet humble enough to do all that he has to — how to learn and listening to other players.
“It’s been impressive how he’s kind of handled everything and he’s been consistent through it. That’s a good starting point. He’s got a hunger about him, but he’s got a humbleness. I think that’s a good blend.”
Joining the brotherhood
Melvin Gordon remembers when he first connected with Allen over Instagram. The Badgers’ fourth-leading rusher in program history and the starting running back for the Denver Broncos told Allen he was now in the club.
“I just kind of told him like, ‘Hey, man, we’re a brotherhood there. Any time you want to talk or anything or need advice towards anything, bro, I’m here to speak to you. I want you to get to where I’m at,’” Gordon said.
They spoke before training camp about how Allen should approach his first college camp. The pillars of Gordon’s advice were for Allen to work as hard as he could and to play fast.
“He’s been a role model for me ever since I started getting into football,” Allen said about Gordon. “That’s not a guy you want to disappoint. I’ve got to carry on the tradition of ‘RB U’, and I think I could do that.”
The pair share somewhat of a common history. Both are Wisconsin natives who had considerable hype behind them before they arrived in Madison. On top of reclassifying, Allen’s recruiting journey went from standout safety to projected linebacker to powerful ball carrier in less than a year, adding even more intrigue to his potential at UW.
Gordon didn’t have those positional questions coming out of Kenosha because he was one of the nation’s top running backs. But he does remember thinking about his family, his friends and what people expected before his first game in a Badgers uniform.
“Football is hard enough in itself to worry about other people’s expectations,” Gordon said. “I hope that’s not the case for him. … I hope when he’s out there he’s just thinking about what he can do to help make the team better.”
Gordon, who’s in his seventh NFL season and second in Denver, said he hasn’t been able to watch much of UW’s season thus far, but he catches the highlights when he can. He had a similar relationship that he’s building with Allen with another UW star rusher, Jonathan Taylor. He’d catch up with Taylor from time to time, offering thoughts when he believed his experience could provide an example to draw upon.
“Everybody has their own path, so what might work for me might not work for JT, might not work for Braelon,” Gordon said. “But you know, the overall goal is to get to the next level. I can help them out as much as I can to lead them in the right direction.”
Allen has said that he takes cues from bigger backs like Gordon and Tennessee Titans tailback Derrick Henry, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2015 at Alabama. At 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, Allen knows his blend of size, speed and power can be dangerous if he uses it properly. Having the coaching of Gary Brown, who coached Ezekiel Elliott with the Dallas Cowboys, also provides a path to success.
“Obviously I want to go to the NFL, but I don’t just want to be some fifth-round, fourth-round pick,” Allen said. “I want to be a first-round pick, top 10. He’s the guy that I can ask for advice. And let me know what I need to work on to put myself in that position, in that spot.”
Allen hasn’t limited his sources of inspiration or guidance to outside of the UW facility. His willingness to ask questions helped get him up to speed with the offense quickly, reminiscent of how Chimere Dike rose up the ranks in the wide receiver room a year ago by asking questions and applying those answers to the practice field.
Allen sought out veterans such as senior fullback John Chenal and junior running back Brady Schipper to learn the playbook and pass protection schemes UW employs.
“He’s someone that asks a question, maybe about a mistake he made, and then he corrects that mistake,” Chenal said. “You’re not going to see him making the same mistake over and over again. So that’s something that I really admire about him and his work ethic. It’s just showing how much he’s grown in such a small amount of time, even during the season, like before our eyes, from Illinois to last game we played against Army. He’s grown and just little things, really happy that he keeps building and taking one step at a time.”
He found a sounding board in Mellusi for guidance on the finer points of his position, such as learning how to read blocks, what to study about a defense at the college level and more.
Mellusi was in Allen’s shoes when he was a 17-year-old freshman and the youngest player on the team at Clemson. Mellusi believes when Allen dials in certain aspects, such as running with a forward lean so defenders can’t hit Allen’s chest or attack the ball as easily, Allen will become more effective and harder to tackle.
“He’s a natural football player,” Mellusi said. “I think the world has already kind of seen he’s pretty damn good.”
When Allen’s needed a shot of confidence as he got used to college football or embraced his new role, he’s found it in redshirt sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz. Mertz’s self-belief is unwavering, regardless of the game’s outcome, and the pair talk weekly about the game plan and opportunities for Allen to cut it loose and run like the Badgers know he can.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard insists Allen one day will be playing on his side of the ball. As heavily as Leonhard was involved in Allen’s recruitment, he’s not surprised that Allen’s made the quick impact he has and how he’s positioned himself as a crucial piece of the offense for the second half of the season.
“We all know the physical tools that he has, but emotionally, same guy every day,” Leonhard said. “Just comes in, knows he has high goals and just comes and works and keeps his mouth shut and just powers forward. You love the approach that he has. He’s a little bit wise beyond his years to just put his head down and just get to work.
“He’s still going to find a way to play some defense, don’t worry. We’ll steal him back at some point. Just doing a great job and he’s a tone-setter. There’s no question about that. You see the physicality and you see any time you get a big back like that, you see an O-line just kind of get a different look in their eye knowing that, ‘All right, let’s give him some space, get him rolling downhill.’ It’s fun to watch.”
Wisconsin at Purdue football: 3 keys to victory, how the Badgers can spark their offense and predictions
WHO HAS THE EDGEUpdated
When the Badgers have the ball
Braelon Allen became the first Badgers freshman to post consecutive 100-yard rushing games since Jonathan Taylor in 2017. If he continues producing as he has, it won’t be the last time Allen’s freshman season is compared to Taylor’s breakout campaign. Without a consistent passing game, the Badgers have asked Allen and junior Chez Mellusi to carry the load, and they’ll likely need to this week against Purdue. The Boilermakers are seventh in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 124.6 yards per contest, including a 175-yard performance by Illinois. They did hold Iowa to 76 yards on 30 carries last week.
Blocking defensive end George Karlaftis will be a whole-offense operation. The tackles clearly must play better after Army’s Andre Carter got pressure and tallied a strip-sack early last week. But those edge blockers will need some help in the way of chip blocks and slide protections. Quarterback Graham Mertz also will have to avoid holding the ball too long and eat a sack without fumbling if it comes down to it.
Tight end Jake Ferguson had four catches in the first half last week, and Purdue has had mixed results against tight ends this season. The Boilermakers held Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer to one catch for 5 yards, but Iowa’s Sam LaPorta have five catches for 61 yards.
After not being targeted last week, perhaps UW receiver Chimere Dike can provide a spark to the Badgers’ offense.
Edge: Slightly Purdue
When Purdue has the ball
The Purdue offense will have to prepare for the man and pressure schemes that UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has utilized against passing offenses this season after seeing almost exclusively zone coverages last week at Iowa.
Wide receiver David Bell deservedly gets the lion’s share of the attention as he leads the conference in receiving yards per game (135.8) and catches per game (7.6). But the Boilermakers have other weapons in receiver Milton Wright and tight end Payne Durham that can pick apart defenses if they’re not covered properly. Purdue’s rushing attack has been pedestrian at best since Zander Horvath was injured in the Connecticut game, averaging 64.5 yards on 29.5 carries over the past four games. The Boilermakers may not even try to run much against UW’s front, which ranks third in the FBS at 64.3 yards allowed per game despite facing a triple-option offense last week.
This will be a test for the Badgers’ front seven to get pressure on quarterback Aidan O’Connell quickly. He gets the ball out of his hands quickly and operates from the shotgun, but if outside linebackers Nick Herbig and Noah Burks can get around the edge as quickly as they have at times this season, O’Connell’s not very mobile.
Edge: Slightly Wisconsin
The Badgers lost kick returner Devin Chandler to the transfer portal this week, taking away a speedy weapon from the UW special teams. Purdue and UW are the bottom two teams in the Big Ten in terms of kick returns.
Purdue ranks 13th in the conference in net punting, so a stop in Purdue territory by the defense could lead to advantageous field position for the offense. Purdue kicker Mitchell Fineran is 10 of 12 kicking field goals this season, with both his misses coming between 30-39 yards.
Edge: Slightly Wisconsin
UW’s 14-game win streak over the Boilermakers is the program’s longest active win streak over any opponent and tied for the third-longest win streak in school history over an opponent. UW notched 17 victories over Marquette from 1944 to 1960. The streak against Purdue is tied for the program’s longest ever against a Big Ten opponent with the streak against Minnesota from 2004-17.
Purdue earned its first ranking in the AP Top 25 poll since 2007 this week. Coach Paul Chryst and the Badgers are looking to snap an eight-game skid against ranked teams that dates back to the 2019 season.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BADGERSUpdated
1. Mix it up: The Badgers have run the ball on 70% of their first downs this season. That number gets inflated by wins against Eastern Michigan and Illinois where the run game was working and running the ball was a good decision. But UW needs to break that tendency more often as it enters a the stretch run of the season. Some first down passes, even short ones, to get quarterback Graham Mertz into a rhythm earlier in games and avoid his first pass of a series being in third-and-long situations would be helpful.
2. Find a third: A consistent theme on the Badgers offense through the first half of the season is having just two receivers prominently involved. Last week it was Danny Davis and Jake Ferguson; against Illinois it was Kendric Pryor and Chimere Dike. UW has had one game this season in which three or more receivers caught at least three passes — the 34-7 win over Eastern Michigan. UW can and should find a way to get more pass-catchers involved.
3. Turn up the heat: UW’s defensive front will need to help out its secondary by applying pressure, and lots of it, against Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell. He has completed 11 of 23 passes and averages just 4.9 yards per attempt when under pressure this season. That’s easier said than done with how quickly O’Connell gets the ball out of his hands, but asking corners and safeties to hold up for long against David Bell and Purdue’s other receivers is a difficult ask as well. If Jim Leonhard has shown anything during his tenure as UW’s defensive coordinator, he’ll err on the side of aggressiveness and trust his linebackers to create some havoc in the backfield.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BOILERMAKERSUpdated
1. Test the tackling: For the most part, the Badgers have done well tackling this season. Pro Football Focus has UW down for 39 missed tackles (6.5 per game), which ranks second in the Big Ten behind only Michigan (36). Twelve of the Badgers’ missed tackles have been by the starting secondary, so Purdue’s style of short passes leading to catch-and-run opportunities could be made even more effective if UW misses tackles. Purdue’s short crossing routes, which try to get receivers running away from defenders, would be good way to see if the Badgers can continue tackling well.
2. Follow the blitz trend: Quarterback Graham Mertz has been blitzed on 34% of his drop backs in the Badgers’ losses. Mertz is completing 48.9% of his passes when blitzed and 28.9% of his passes when under pressure this season. Purdue doesn’t blitz a lot, typically allowing defensive end George Karlaftis and the rest of the front to get pressure without the aid of an extra rusher. But expect Purdue and other opponents to bring the heat until the Badgers’ offense shows the ability to consistently beat blitzes.
3. Protect the ball: Purdue does a good job of not throwing interceptions for how often it passes. The Boilermakers have a 2.2% interception rate, with six on 267 pass attempts. That needs to continue this week against a Badgers defense that too often has put itself in position for picks and not capitalized. Receiver David Bell’s prowess at winning 50-50 balls helps keep the interceptions down, but Aidan O’Connell and the rest of Purdue’s quarterbacks can’t give away any momentum by turning over the ball.
Series: UW leads 50-29-8
First meeting: UW lost 32-4 in 1892
Last meeting: UW won 45-24 at Camp Randall in 2019
UW's longest winning streak: 14 games (2004 to present)
UW's longest losing streak: Three games (Three different times)
UW didn’t have an identity on offense for the first month-plus of the season. It appears the Badgers have one now, albeit one that’s not going to score a ton of points and will rely on the defense to win games. Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi will have to do the bulk of the work offensively, but this week will be when the Badgers don’t turn it over and do just enough to get the job done. The defense gets a game-swinging interception to boot.
UW 20, Purdue 17
The fan's pick
The Badgers have won 14 straight against Purdue. They head to Ross-Ade Stadium for Saturday's football game against the Boilermakers. Will UW make it 15 straight?— Badger Beat (@BadgerBeat) October 19, 2021