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Sunday, September 24, 2023

Berger’s absence puzzling in UW’s opening week loss to Penn State

Among many things that had Badgers fans scratching their head during No. 12 Wisconsin’s 16-10 loss to No. 19 Penn State Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, one concern stood out most –– where in the world was Jalen Berger?

Berger, the sophomore running back from the New Jersey pipeline, established himself as the team’s top ball-carrier last season thanks to break out performances against Michigan and Northwestern in which he compiled 180 rushing yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. 

He doesn’t profile as the type of heavy-usage back like Jonathan Taylor and others before him, so it wasn’t too much of a concern when Wisconsin announced Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi at the top of the depth chart earlier in the week. 

After all, Berger was not listed on the injury report. Expectations were for Mellusi and Berger to split carries, with Berger being the higher-leverage option throughout the game. Berger’s Saturday statline, however, told a much different story. 

Zero carries, zero yards. Zero snaps.

Especially in a losing effort, the absence of UW’s most dynamic playmaker was glaring, and head coach Paul Chryst didn’t provide a whole lot of answers postgame. 

“Just because [Berger] didn’t play doesn’t mean he’s doing something wrong,” Chryst told the media Saturday afternoon. “It’s also that we liked what [Mellusi] did and [Isaac Guerendo] did.”

To his credit, Mellusi perfectly filled the heavy-usage running back role that Chryst has been employing for more than a half-decade. The junior topped his entire 2020 output (27 carries) on Saturday with 31 rushes for 121 yards and Wisconsin’s lone touchdown score. Getting the remainder of Wisconsin’s rushing attempts was junior Isaac Guerendo, who put together a solid game himself –– 13 carries for 56 yards. 

It was enough to keep the offense moving consistently, but neither Mellusi nor Guerendo showed much of that big-play explosiveness like Berger did time and time again with his snaps last season –– one of the reasons fans and scouts alike are dreaming of Berger as the next Badger headed to the NFL. 

On Saturday, however, Chryst didn’t even see Berger as one of the top two backs on the roster.

“The way the game played out, we weren’t thinking we needed to go with three [running backs] at the time,” Chryst said Monday of Berger’s absence in the opener. 

It’s possible that Berger was dealing with a minor injury and simply wasn’t listed on the injury report as gamesmanship. He featured heavily throughout summer camp and was taking first-team reps as recently as one week before the season opener. 

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To suggest that Chryst held out the uber-talented running back for skill reasons alone might be, quite frankly, insulting to Chryst and how he’s built lineups over the years. When Berger broke out last fall, Chryst was comfortable riding the then-freshman as RB1 over veterans Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek. 

Yet one way or another, Berger was not part of the game plan in week one. 

While rumors of a possible transfer swirl on message boards, it’s worth noting that Berger did attend classes Wednesday, according to a Twitter photo posted by Wisconsin Athletics Learning Specialist Danielle Straw. In the image, Berger is shown holding a small sign celebrating the first day of school. Next to a prompt asking his wish for the year, in bright blue letters, Berger wrote simply: “Win the Big Ten.”

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