Jalen Berger ran onto the field six minutes into the first quarter Saturday night and quickly got his first carry of the University of Wisconsin football season.
That’s not what the Camp Randall Stadium fans initially were told. It was first announced over the speakers as another rush for Chez Mellusi, who had taken the ball on the Badgers’ first seven plays and was puzzled when he heard his name from the sideline.
An appreciative cheer came from some sections of the stadium when it was corrected and Berger’s name went out into the seats.
One of the lingering curiosities out of UW’s loss to Penn State a week earlier was why Berger didn’t get onto the field while Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo lined up.
There hasn’t been much clarity given to that question, and that continued after Saturday’s 34-7 Badgers victory against Eastern Michigan. Berger said he “can’t really give an answer right now.”
“I’m just waiting for my number to be called,” he said. “I mean, it’s in the past now and I’m just prepared to move forward and focus on next week.”
Coach Paul Chryst went from vague to vaguer in discussing the circumstances that kept Berger, a redshirt freshman who was the team’s leading rusher in 2020, out of action against Penn State.
“There’s not a lot of drama that way,” he said Saturday in response to a question on whether Berger asked between games where he stood in the rushing plan. “You communicate with all of them.”
No one in the Badgers’ running back room or coaching staff seems to want to feed into the external speculation on Berger’s first-game absence. But they were happy to get into what could develop if UW can have Berger as part of a three-player rotation.
When Berger got his chance to contribute Saturday in a game that was lopsided throughout, he showed the value that the Badgers have in interchanging the three main backfield threats.
“I think for us to be a good group there, it’s going to take all of them,” Chryst said.
Mellusi led the way for a second straight week with 144 yards on 20 carries. But Berger got the ball 15 times for 62 yards while Guerendo carried only four times. Each had one touchdown.
The trio had their helmets off and were chatting it up on the bench by the fourth quarter as Brady Schipper and Braelon Allen got work to extend UW’s running back depth.
“Just happy to cheer on the young guys, that’s all it is,” Berger said. “Being excited for them.”
Berger is more in the young category, but he said he considers himself playing like a veteran. Part of a veteran approach is handling being left out of the game plan in a contest that got away from your team.
That’s where Berger was last week, but he said he had to let it roll off him.
“Just not letting it get to my head,” he said. “Just focus on when my number’s going to be called. And when it’s going to be called, (give) everything I’ve got.”
Mellusi and Berger have been paired in the team’s hotel on the nights before the first two games this season. Berger credited the Clemson transfer with trying to get him to tune out the distractions of questions about playing time.
“He’s a worker. He’s a grinder like all the backs,” Mellusi said. “He knew his name was going to be called and he made the best of his opportunities tonight.”
Berger entered on the Badgers’ second drive Saturday after UW wasn’t able to convert on fourth-and-goal from the 2 on its opening push. He got six of seven carries before Mellusi pushed his way in from 6 yards out.
It was Berger and Guerendo on the third drive, when Berger had a 35-yard run called back on a holding penalty by Kayden Lyles. That drive also stalled and ended with a field goal.
Berger got into the end zone on the next UW possession, a combination effort where Mellusi was out for five of the first six rushes before giving way.
Guerendo didn’t need any help on the fifth drive because he took the first play 82 yards for a score.
“I think it’s overwhelming for defenses because we all have different running styles,” Mellusi said. “If I’m in the game, I bring this elusive, make-a-guy-miss type of game. Then you have Isaac where if he hits the edge ... I don’t know if you’re going to catch him. The same with Jalen.”
Berger wasn’t noticeably different in practice after last week’s snub, his rushing partners said.
“I think things just fell in place for him and that allowed him to have a good game,” Guerendo said.
Good wasn’t the word that Berger was using. He instead went with “decent.”
“I didn’t play as great as I wanted to play,” he said.
His quick self-evaluation included some missed reads and letting himself get tackled in 1-on-1 matchups with defenders.
“I’ve got to be better,” he said.