For just the second time in 130 years, the Gophers will not face Wisconsin in football this season.
A rise in COVID-19 cases on the Gophers forced the athletic department to pause all team activities and thus call off Saturday’s game in Madison, marking the first interruption since 1906 of a border rivalry that dates to 1890. The game goes down as a no-contest.
The Gophers announced that nine players and six staff members have tested positive in the past five days, plus an unknown number of presumptive positive tests Tuesday still awaiting PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction test) confirmation.
“But based on what we’ve seen,” athletic director Mark Coyle said Tuesday evening, “we anticipate that what we saw today will come back positive.”
Coyle said the Gophers will know sometime Wednesday if the football team’s case numbers grows beyond 15 and will share that information when it is available. He said in the news release that the goal is to come back for the Dec. 5 game against Northwestern.
This is the Gophers’ first no-contest of the year and the Badgers’ third — a COVID-19 outbreak on its team led Wisconsin to cancel games against Nebraska and Purdue earlier this season.
This third missed game puts the Badgers below the six-game threshold to qualify for the Big Ten championship, unless the conference’s total average of games played falls below six. Wisconsin’s title chances had already taken a hit with last week’s loss at Northwestern.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said in a statement his team’s troubles mirror those of teams across the country, with more than 90 games canceled or postponed this season.
Because the Big Ten started later than other conferences, there isn’t any wiggle room to reschedule, and the release stated the Gophers and Badgers would not make up the game. But Coyle did say he would discuss with Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez about possibly playing Wisconsin during the ninth-game slot Dec. 19. That is supposed to be a shared “championship week” where East and West division teams meet depending on the standings, culminating in the Big Ten championship game.
The Gophers first announced a pause to practice late Monday night, planning to conduct virtual activities while waiting for confirmatory tests on new positive daily antigen tests. The hope then was to return to practice Wednesday as normal in preparation for the trip to Camp Randall if some of those tests turned out to be false positives.
But when the 15 number became clear, and with more presumed, Coyle, University President Joan Gabel and athletic department medical director Dr. Brad Nelson made the cancellation call in consultation with the Big Ten.
The Gophers are not sure what caused the outbreak, Coyle said.
“The virus is the ghost in the room that nobody can see,” Coyle said. “And we’ll try to gather as much information as we can.”
This was not a forced cancellation per the Big Ten’s policy. The Gophers test 170 football players and staff every day and would need 60 positive tests of 1,190 total administered in a week, plus 13 positive players and/or staff members, to be unable to play. Coyle did not know the number of total positive tests in the past seven days, but anything more than 24 put the Gophers in the position to re-evaluate the upcoming game. That’s what Wisconsin actually did in canceling its second game of the season with 12 positive players and staff.
The Gophers missed 22 players in last week’s Purdue game, with Fleck saying half were for COVID-19 positive tests — some from several weeks ago with players still observing the Big Ten’s 21-day sit-out policy — and the other half for injuries. Ahead of that game, offensive line coach Brian Callahan and two other unnamed staff members tested positive, in addition to an unknown number of players.
Nelson, per the release, termed the team’s recent COVID-19 uptick as a “sudden increase” in positive tests. In addition to the daily testing regimen, the Gophers will now institute two PCR tests per week for all football players and staff as they work toward a return to practice and competition.
The Gophers (2-3) still have games against Northwestern and Nebraska left on the schedule. Wisconsin (2-1) has Indiana and Iowa.
“I am disappointed for our student-athletes and our fans that we will not be able to compete on Saturday,” Fleck said, per the release. “But we need to focus on the health of our student-athletes and staff, which means stopping the spread of the virus. I support the decision.”
Coyle said he and Alvarez have spoken several times since Monday, and Alvarez shared how he navigated the Badgers through their own outbreak. Coyle will take advice from the Big Ten’s medical subcommittee as well as other programs that have been through shutdowns, such as Maryland, to help make the Gophers’ time away from the game as short as possible.
“It’s something that none of us can control,” Coyle said. “The virus remains undefeated.”