If Chez Mellusi wasn’t playing or watching sports as a kid, it’s a good bet he was watching a movie.
Mellusi, the University of Wisconsin junior running back, is one of those movie buffs who gets sucked in quickly and enjoys rewatching the same films multiple times. He’ll pick up new details or relive favorite moments with each viewing. One of his childhood favorites was “Space Jam,” so much so he has a tattoo on his left leg inspired by it.
The artwork is of Bugs Bunny holding out a water bottle with the words, “Chez’s secret stuff,” written on the label. In the movie, Bugs tricks the Tune Squad into thinking Michael Jordan had a concoction in that bottle that would make them play better, but it was just water.
“I got that my senior year of high school,” Mellusi said about his tattoo. “I was like, I think that’d be cool if I gave it a little play and made it Chez’s secret stuff.”
The motif of believing in yourself, present in so many of Mellusi’s favorite movies, is central to his path to UW. Mellusi even may have had a few swigs of his secret stuff last week before the best performance of his college career against Illinois.
UW (2-3) hopes he’s saved some for this week’s home test against Army (4-1) and for the homestretch of the season that features six consecutive games against Big Ten Conference opponents. Mellusi leads the team in rushing attempts (96), yards (477) and touchdowns (3) after posting a line of 21-145-1 in Champaign. He told reporters that’s the standard he’s holding himself to the rest of the season.
Mellusi has become a de facto leader of the Badgers running backs after a tumultuous six weeks that has seen the group lose three scholarship players, including last season’s leading rusher Jalen Berger.
Mellusi was focused on finding his role on the team and learning a new offense after transferring from Clemson this summer. Now that he’s proven how he can contribute on the field, the Badgers are looking for him to continue adding to the group outside the lines to climb out of the 2-3 hole the team dug for itself.
“He’s been himself,” UW coach Paul Chryst said about his starting tailback.
“I don’t feel like he’s trying to be someone that he’s not. And then I think where being himself has been a positive is when a guy goes through and makes a decision that he made. ... My gut tells me that there’s another driven purpose behind it. And so someone with purposeful actions is good to follow, and good to see. He brings that.”
A needed spark
Mellusi isn’t used to losing.
He spent four years at a powerhouse high school program in Naples, Florida, then two years competing for national championships at Clemson. Starting 1-3 — matching the number of collegiate losses he’d experienced before joining the Badgers — wore on him. Worse yet, it showed.
His body language on the sideline during the loss to Michigan was poor, and he realized he was dragging down his teammates with him.
“This past week, he really wanted to focus on his body language, and I thought that he did a tremendous job and you could totally feel it in the game,” junior running back Brady Schipper said. “When he’s doing that and leading by example, it really brings along everybody else. … That gives a spark and then that spark catches and everyone on the offense kind of feeds off of that and kind of gets us rolling.”
Jim Leonhard, UW’s defensive coordinator, also noted the change in Mellusi’s body language of late.
“To me, the biggest flip that I’ve seen the last few weeks is just that confidence,” Leonhard said. “You see him walk in and you’re like, ‘I like that kid. I like the look in his eye and just how he’s attacking everything.’”
Consider the misstep a growing pain in becoming a leader.
Mellusi arrived at UW in June after coaching changes among Clemson’s assistants made Mellusi believe he wouldn’t get much opportunity to play had he stayed for another season. He needed a change of scenery and scheme to show how he can help a team win. His talent and experience were key factors in the Badgers’ interest in bringing Mellusi on board — UW needed to deepen its stable of backs who could contribute this season.
But it took some time for Mellusi to feel comfortable enough in his new environment to share his thoughts. He felt like he had to get his play in order first before he could make suggestions or share ideas.
UW’s tailbacks needed someone to take ownership of the group. The group had enough quiet voices even when it had all of its scholarship players. It needed a jolt and someone to push the rest of the room. Now that he’s more settled, teammates such as senior safety Collin Wilder, who transferred earlier in his career and has been in Mellusi’s shoes, are starting to see Mellusi take that role.
“Obviously leadership is needed in that unit,” Wilder said. “It’s open for who wants it, like who wants to take it, who wants to take on that leadership role? I think I can see Chez slowly starting to, you know, take that on. It’s tough when you transfer and you don’t know if you’re stepping on any toes. You don’t know who really is the leader of that group until you get here. I can tell he’s starting to figure out he can be that guy.”
Freshman Braelon Allen emerged as the other half of a 1-2 punch in the backfield with Mellusi last week. The two have been working together since they arrived on campus and Mellusi knows firsthand the rare situation Allen is in. Like Allen, Mellusi was a 17-year-old freshman at Clemson. Mellusi has been guiding Allen in how to study a defense’s tendencies and the details of pass protection, a key factor to earning playing time at the position.
“He’s been a huge leader for us,” Allen said about Mellusi.
Rocky, Dash and football
While Mellusi isn’t in a movie of his own yet, he already has a stage name. Chez is a shortened version of his actual name, Cesare (pronounced Chez-uh-ray), a name he shares with his paternal grandfather.
The nickname came when he moved to Naples in middle school and has stuck.
Mellusi’s mother, Thyrza Mathis, said you can learn a lot about her son from the movies he goes back to time and again.
“If you see Chez and you see the movie ‘Rocky,’ all of them, there’s a part of him ... that competition is who he is,” Mathis said. “It’s not giving up. Rocky doesn’t give up in any of those movies. His whole balance has always been, ‘If they can do that in the movies, I can make that happen.’”
Another favorite, one that Mathis says explains where Mellusi got his love of running, was the 2004 hit “The Incredibles.”
“When he was younger, this was even before he knew anything about football, he loved ‘The Incredibles’ and he thought he was Dash,” Mathis said, referencing the young boy with super speed who’s part of the Incredibles family in the movie. “He had pajamas Dash, underwear Dash, everything you knew, he was Dash. He was like, ‘Mom, one day I’m going to be like Dash and I’m going to run so fast.’ That really should be his nickname.”
As he’s gotten older, ‘80s classics such as “Scarface” and “Rambo” have ascended his list, a product of the movie marathons he’d pull off with his late uncle, Ray Ray.
Mellusi grew up in Washington, D.C., and was on the couch watching every Washington Football Team game with his dad, Mario. Those hours watching games were also history lessons, and Mellusi has an array of stored trivia about old lineups and results. He always had a ball in his hands as a child, Mathis said, but football took hold in middle school and became his focus.
The family moved to Florida as Mellusi’s football talents started to show, but he has a tattoo of the Washington Nationals logo on his left arm to commemorate his hometown.
Mathis said it was difficult to watch her son go through the transfer process, but she believed him when he said he would find a place willing to give him an opportunity. UW has been that and more, she said.
“I don’t even call it luck, this is a blessing,” Mathis said. “I know that Clemson prepared him in a way to understand there’s something about patience that you have to learn. I really, truly believe that my son learned that word ‘patience’ at Clemson.
“I have to say, I thought Clemson — this is just facts — I thought Clemson had a huge fan base. Oh, my God, Wisconsin (fans) beat Clemson. I felt like we were at home and it’s just like, this is our child living his dream, finally. God forbid, even if he doesn’t make it to the NFL, at least he got to show and play and enjoy his college life.”
Wisconsin vs. Army football: 3 keys to victory, who should get the carries for the Badgers and predictions
WHO HAS THE EDGE
When the Badgers have the ball
Freshman running back Braelon Allen showed he was ready for lead-back responsibilities last week with his 173-yard, three-touchdown performance against Northwestern. The Wildcats’ defense was one of the worst in the country at stopping the run, but Allen has a stiffer test coming against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers rank 39th in the FBS and seventh in the Big Ten allowing 132.5 yards rushing per game.
Nebraska will be playing its first game of the season without linebacker JoJo Domann, who’s out for the season with a hand injury. Domann was third on the team in tackles with 72 and had nine tackles for loss, including three sacks. He also had two picks and two forced fumbles. Linebackers Luke Reimer (96 tackles), Nick Henrich (87 tackles) and Garrett Nelson (45 tackles, 10½ for loss) will be tasked with slowing down Allen.
UW quarterback Graham Mertz and the passing game have found a rhythm in the past three weeks, adding balance to the offense and improving the team’s ability to convert third downs. UW has converted 46.2% of third downs the past three games and 28.4% the rest of the season. If Mertz can continue moving the chains and avoiding turnovers, UW’s offense should be in good shape against Nebraska’s pass defense, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten (230.6 yards per game allowed).
When Nebraska has the ball
Nebraska’s offense starts and stops with quarterback Adrian Martinez. When he’s good, the Cornhuskers are tough to stop because he can challenge the defense deep with his arm while also taking advantage of space underneath by scrambling. Martinez is Nebraska’s leading rusher (50.2 yards per game) and passer (251.2 ypg) this season.
However, when he’s bad, it often means turnovers and big plays the other way. Martinez has thrown eight interceptions and has lost three of his seven fumbles this season. Martinez has had success against UW before, averaging 375 total yards of offense and 2.5 total touchdowns in two matchups.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said the 2019 game against Nebraska opened his eyes to some adjustments the Badgers needed on defense, and he said he believes the group is better-equipped to contain Martinez this season.
Samori Toure, a transfer from Montana, leads Nebraska in every receiving category (33 catches, 718 yards, four TDs). UW was also in pursuit of Toure on the transfer market. Running back has been a weak spot, with Rahmir Johnson leading that group with 495 yards on 112 carries. Tight end Austin Allen (29 catches, 404 yards, two TDs) is a difficult matchup on size alone — the junior is 6 foot 9 and 255 pounds.
The Badgers have been creating turnovers at a high rate during their win streak. Their 17 takeaways are the most of any Power Five team over that six-game span.
Nebraska’s field-goal kicking has been a consistent weakness this season, and coach Scott Frost said Monday there wasn’t much he could do to ensure his kickers are ready psychologically to perform. Connor Culp (6 of 12) and Chase Contreraz (2 of 4) are a combined 6 for 11 on field goals under 40 yards.
The Cornhuskers, like the Badgers, haven’t produced much in the return games.
UW’s Andy Vujnovich is fifth in the Big Ten with an average punt of 45.4 yards and 11 of his 42 punts this year have gone for 50-plus this season.
Edge: Slightly Wisconsin
UW’s six-game winning streak is tied for second-longest under coach Paul Chryst. He is 5-0 against Nebraska since becoming UW’s coach, with the average score in those games being 32.4-20.
Mertz has thrown for more than 210 yards in back-to-back games for the first time in his career.
Frost is 0-5 at Nebraska the week following an open date, with one of those losses coming to UW in 2019. The Cornhuskers are on a four-game losing streak; the program has had a losing streak of at least four games in three of the four years Frost has coached.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BADGERS
1. Keep building passing attack: Graham Mertz is looking about as comfortable as he has in the pocket for the Badgers over the past three weeks. He’s been decisive in his decision-making, and he’s paying off good protection and open receivers with solid pay. UW should keep up that against Northwestern, especially with play-action passes early in the game. Northwestern is going to have to commit extra bodies to stopping the run, and Mertz should have one-on-one opportunities early and often.
2. Get an early lead: One through line during the Badgers’ five-game win streak has been getting leads in the first half. The only game in the streak that the Badgers lost that first-half lead was at Purdue, but UW got a late field goal to tie the game before halftime. Leads allow coordinator Jim Leonhard to unleash the front seven in the pass rush, and Northwestern’s middle-of-the-pack offense — eighth in the Big Ten in rushing and passing — can’t operate one-dimensionally if the score forces it to throw more.
3. Dominate the interior: Leonhard credited the work of nose tackle Keeanu Benton and the entire defensive line for how effective the unit has been this season. He said by sharpening their angles and allowing them to be more downhill, it’s helped create more disruption in the backfield. Northwestern’s interior line isn’t likely to be able to handle Benton or ends Matt Henningsen and Isaiah Mullens. The Wildcats allow more than five tackles for loss per game, and the Badgers are tied for 17th in the FBS with 6.8 TFLs per game.
THREE KEYS FOR THE WILDCATS
1. Keep Marty moving: Northwestern has used just about every realistic option it started the season with under center at some point this season. Senior Andrew Marty has gotten the bulk of the work the past two weeks and it’s probably the best decision the Wildcats can make. His 60.5% completion rate is the best on the team, and he’s a willing runner despite being a 6-foot-3, 224-pound pocket passer. His mobility could be helpful in buying time against UW’s active pass rush, turning sacks into throwaways.
2. Muck it up: Whatever the Wildcats have done trying to stop opponents’ rushing attacks this season hasn’t worked, so Northwestern should muck it up against the Badgers’ resurgent ground game. What’s that look like? Blitzing linebackers, shooting gaps and hoping those tactics lead to chaos in the backfield. This is a high-risk, high-reward proposition — this strategy also could lead to huge lanes to the second and third levels for UW rushers — but the way the Wildcats are playing up front must change for them to have a chance.
3. Tackle Braelon Allen: UW will need freshman tailback Braelon Allen to be the primary tailback and carry the biggest load of his young career with junior Chez Mellusi out for the season. Allen already has shown prowess in running through tackles — PFF credits him with 4.03 yards after contact per carry. Northwestern is tied for 12th in the Big Ten with 117 missed tackles, per PFF, so a step forward in this area is necessary.
Series: UW leads 60-37-5
First meeting: UW lost 22-10
Last meeting: UW lost 17-7 last season
UW's longest winning streak: 13 games (1972 to 1984)
UW's longest losing streak: Six games (1929 to 1937)
It’s difficult to envision the Badgers' opponent getting to double-digit points. Northwestern doesn’t have enough firepower to handle UW’s defense, which really only has been beaten by high-level receivers. Northwestern has been able to drag UW into rock fights despite a talent gap in the past, but its defensive front is in for a long afternoon against UW’s offensive line.
UW quarterback Graham Mertz should be able to find holes and exact some revenge against the defense that started his downward trajectory last season.
Badgers 35, Northwestern 7
The fan's pick
Northwestern visits Camp Randall this weekend. How is it going to go?— Badger Beat (@BadgerBeat) November 11, 2021