Braelon Allen showed an ability to both take our breath away and make us hold our breath over the course of an afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium.
The freshman tailback officially has arrived as a star and that never was more apparent than during his 173-yard, three-touchdown performance in the University of Wisconsin football team’s 35-7 victory over Northwestern on Saturday. Allen had the ball in his hands 26 times — 25 carries, one catch — and it quickly has reached the point where every touch has the potential for greatness.
But every touch also has the potential to result in an Allen injury, something UW can’t afford as it continues to make progress toward a Big Ten West title. Chez Mellusi’s season-ending knee injury has left Allen as the only sure thing in a once-crowded tailback rotation, so a 13-yard run late in the first quarter that ended with Allen limping created an oh-no moment.
“I just landed on my ankle weird and it just stung for a couple seconds,” said Allen, whose postgame treatment included three minutes in the cold tub. “But it was all good.”
UW coach Paul Chryst can’t put Allen in bubble wrap to protect him, but he has to be smart about not exposing his new workhorse to injury. While Chryst said after the game the Badgers are going to need more than just Allen at that position down the stretch, there’s a big drop-off between him and backup Brady Schipper. Meanwhile, youngsters Julius Davis and Jackson Acker didn’t help their chances for increased roles with fumbles in the fourth quarter.
So how does Chryst know when the right time is to take Allen out of the game? “You don’t,” he admitted.
What seemed like an obvious moment to call it a day came late in the third quarter after UW had built a 28-0 lead. But there was Allen, starting the next series with a 6-yard run that led one armchair quarterback in the press box — OK, it was me — to wonder aloud why he was still in the game.
Allen, on the very next play: Here’s why.
He made three Northwestern defenders miss during a 33-yard run, running over the last one, and scooted into the end zone for his third score of the day. It was a magical moment that never would have happened had Chryst sent in the backups.
“It’s pretty fun watching him,” senior tight end Jake Ferguson said. “I have a couple blocks where I’m blocking and then I’ll look over and he’s just trucking some dude.”
Allen had been monitoring his yardage total and was hoping to get to 200. He wanted to keep going after the touchdown that made it 35-0 — “I was being a little greedy with the yards,” he said — but didn’t register any carries the rest of the way.
I’ve gone this far without reminding you how old Allen is. Braelon Allen is 17 has become the new Brad Davison played quarterback in high school or Jake Ferguson is Barry Alvarez’s grandson. But it bears repeating as a 240-pound phenom who is part bulldozer, part ballerina adds a new chapter to this amazing story each week.
“I didn’t know he was 17 until probably like a month or two ago when everybody started talking about it,” Schipper said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re 17?’ It’s incredible how mature he is.”
Allen is so mature Chryst didn’t even feel the need to pull him aside to see where his head was at heading into his first career start. “He is kind of a guy you trust,” Chryst said.
After hearing the news that Mellusi was out for the season, Allen told his friend that he’d finish the season for the both of them. Allen put in a little extra preparation to make sure he was ready for this bigger role, but his teammates didn’t notice anything different about him during the week.
“He just put his head down and worked to be prepared for all the opportunities he’s going to get and all the carries he had,” Schipper said. “I thought he did a great job preparing, just like he does every week. I think it showed today how well he played. Just the same Braelon.”
Schipper and Chryst both used the word humble to describe Allen, and that’s something I’ve noticed as well about a four-star recruit who could have played at just about any program in the country and on either side of the ball at UW. None of this seems too big for Allen, who handles himself well in interviews and is able to straddle the line between confidence and cockiness.
He did have one minor slip-up over the course of a 9½-minute postgame interview Saturday after being asked if he thought he wore down the Wildcats.
“After my first couple carries, honestly, I was like, ‘These guys aren’t really trying to tackle,’” he said. “They just kind of bounced off me.”
Was Allen being humble in that moment? No. But he also wasn’t wrong.
Wide receiver Danny Davis may have paid Allen the biggest compliment when he said he saw a “little JT” — Jonathan Taylor — in Allen during one of his runs Saturday. That may have sounded like a ridiculous comparison a few weeks ago, but Allen seems to be on a path toward becoming the next elite tailback at UW.
“I think today showed he’s got a chance to be special,” Chryst said.
Contact Jim Polzin at firstname.lastname@example.org.