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.
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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.”
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WHO HAS THE EDGE
When the Badgers have the ball
A lot of attention will be paid this week to the availability of quarterback Graham Mertz, who is questionable after suffering a chest injury on a sack last week against Michigan. Mertz said he’ll try everything he can to practice and play this week.
If Mertz can’t go, junior Chase Wolf would start for the Badgers against an Illinois defense that has recorded 85 pressures in six games. UW needs more from its offensive line in both pass protection and run blocking. Multiple linemen and Mertz said that the game plan this week features more elements to help the line, but they didn’t divulge what those will look like.
Illinois edge rusher Owen Carney, who has 4½ sacks over his last three games, will challenge UW’s senior tackles to protect the quarterback better than they have early this season.
UW could be down to its third and fourth tight ends because both Jake Ferguson and Jack Eschenbach are questionable.
Don’t be surprised to see more tailbacks getting involved. UW isn’t getting enough from its rushing attack — just more than 100 yards per game against Power Five opponents — and may try to get freshman Braelon Allen more touches because he has the ability to push a pile at 6 foot 2, 238 pounds.
Also look for receiver Chimere Dike to continue getting more looks after making two big catches, including a touchdown, against Michigan.
When the Illini has the ball
Illinois touts one of the most experienced rosters in college football and its offense is littered with players with more than 15 games of experience under their belts. Center Doug Kramer and fellow offensive linemen Verderian Lowe and Alex Palczewski power a unit that resembles what coach Bret Bielema ran at UW in form, but not always in function.
Running back Chase Brown just posted 257 yards rushing against Charlotte, but Illinois, much like the Badgers’ other Power Five opponents this season, uses its run game to set up deep passes. Quarterback Brandon Peters missed time with a shoulder injury this season and he’s only thrown one touchdown in 3½ games.
Illinois protects the ball well, giving away just four turnovers, but it shares a problem with the Badgers’ offense — ineffective play in the red zone. Illinois has scored on 10 of 16 red-zone drives this season; UW has scored on 10 of 15 in two fewer games.
UW’s defense will need to find ways to get into the backfield and bring down Peters after not recording a sack last week. Peters has decent mobility and picked up rushing gains of 30 and 31 yards against the Badgers last season.
UW’s toughest matchup on the outside might be Isaiah Williams. The wide receiver who converted from quarterback is averaging nearly five catches per game and runs a lot of short routes that can be difficult for cornerbacks to combat if they’re not in press coverage.
Both punters could be active in this game, an under-the-radar matchup between two of the best in the Big Ten. UW’s Andy Vujnovich is fourth in the conference with an average try of 47.7 yards. Illinois’ Blake Hayes is averaging 45.8 yards per punt, but 19 of his 38 punts have pinned the opponent inside its 20-yard line and 11 have traveled 50-plus yards, tied for the most in the league.
Neither team has had much return game to speak of, but Illinois’ advantage with kicker James McCourt (11 of 16 on field goals this season) has been diminished by the solid play of UW’s Collin Larsh (6 of 8).
UW is trying to avoid a 1-4 start for the first time since 1990 and going back-to-back season with a three-game losing streak for the first time since 2003-04. UW coach Paul Chryst is 5-1 against Illinois as the Badgers’ coach. The Badgers are 10-point favorites but are 1-3 against the spread this season.
Illinois hasn’t won a Power Five game since its Week 0 upset against Nebraska. Bret Bielema went 37-19 in conference play as UW’s coach, but he was 11-29 in SEC games as the coach at Arkansas. He’s off to a 1-2 start in Big Ten play at Illinois.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BADGERS
1. Avoid turnovers: This is trite, but it’s worth mentioning until the Badgers actually do it on Saturdays. UW has 12 turnovers this season, an average of three per game, and is facing an Illinois defense that has 10 takeaways (1.7 per game) this season. Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen has two forced fumbles in four games this season and 12 forced fumbles in his career. He’s one away from tying defensive end Simeon Rice’s program record for career fumbles forced. Thirty of the 74 points the UW defense has allowed have come on possessions following a UW turnover.
2. Get Dike involved again: Sophomore receiver Chimere Dike caught his first two targets of last week’s game for a combined 54 yards and a touchdown. He was targeted just one more time — a catch broken up on a nice play by Michigan’s Daxton Hill. UW had myriad issues protecting the quarterback against Michigan, but it could help out the line by using Dike on some shallow crossing routes and getting the ball out fast. Dike is one of the team’s best receivers and has just seven touches in four games. That should change quickly.
3. Change the tone: The Badgers too often have looked like a team that is waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then a positive mood never is recovered when a mistake happens or the opponent takes a lead. Junior inside linebacker Leo Chenal spoke this week about the importance of maintaining good body language and a better attitude. Do that this week. Illinois isn’t one of the best teams in college football like the teams the Badgers lost to are.
THREE KEYS FOR THE ILLINI
1. Feed Williams: Isaiah Williams is a supremely talented player for Illinois, one UW hasn’t seen much of this season. His quickness and agility on the edge allow him to make plays that don’t appear to be there on first glance. UW is strongest in its front and will slow the Illini rushing attack, so getting Williams the ball in the flats and letting him try to create yards after the catch may be the smartest plan of attack.
2. Blitz heavily: Owen Carney Jr. is a handful for the Badgers to deal with as an edge rusher, but Michigan was able to grind the UW offense to a halt with well-timed blitzes last week. The Wolverines blitzed on 10 of 30 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and tallied six sacks. Illinois should consider using its defensive backs as blitzers as well. UW had trouble identifying them and getting them blocked against Michigan.
3. Win the special teams battle: UW’s special teams have hurt the cause over the past two weeks, and Illinois would be wise not to return the favor. While field-goal kicking and punting used to be where the Badgers settled for less than average, they have been executing kickoffs correctly and fielding punts this season. Illinois must not give up possessions or field position with errors on special teams to pull off the mini upset. Remember, Illinois downed a then-undefeated UW team in 2019 with a pressure-packed 39-yard field goal.
Series: UW leads 43-37-7
First meeting: Teams tied 10-10 in 1895
Last meeting: UW won 45-7 at Camp Randall last season
UW's longest winning streak: Nine games (2008, 2011-2018)
UW's longest losing streak: Six games (1987-1992)
UW’s defense should be stout enough not to allow much to the Illini, but it’s hard to expect much from the Badgers with the uncertainty at quarterback for the Badgers. Perhaps this is the week the offensive line and run game get it going and take the pressure off whomever is under center. Both defenses are hunting turnovers, and I think this is the week that UW gets the edge in that category and it decides the game.
Badgers 24, Illinois 14
The fan's pick
The Badgers face a familiar foe this weekend, Bret Bielema and the University of Illinois. Who are you taking?— Badger Beat (@BadgerBeat) October 5, 2021