Now that the Gophers have joined the long list of college football teams that have been prompted to cancel a game because of positive COVID-19 tests — Minnesota called off Saturday’s game at Wisconsin on Tuesday night — where does the program go from here?
Like the dealing with the virus itself, the answer to that question isn’t cut and dried. Based on the two Big Ten programs that have had to cancel games, Wisconsin and Maryland, don’t be surprised if the Gophers’ hiatus becomes two weeks off. Nothing has been announced on that front, and a decision wouldn’t need to be made until next week.
Minnesota is scheduled to play host to West Division leader Northwestern on Dec. 5. Both Wisconsin and Maryland needed to cancel a second game before they could return to play, with the Badgers missing out on contests at Nebraska and at home against Purdue, while the Terrapins scuttled home games against Ohio State and Michigan State.
On Wednesday, the Gophers announced that they have 25 positive cases — 12 players and 13 staff members. That is a rise from Tuesday, when they announced nine players and six staff were positive.
The Gophers said they will give their next update Saturday. As scary as their numbers look, the outbreaks at Wisconsin and Maryland were even bigger.
Here’s how the events unfolded in Madison, Wis., and College Park, Md., based on reports compiled by the Wisconsin State Journal and Washington Post, along with official announcements from the schools:
The virus hits Wisconsin
Wisconsin had one player test positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 21, two days before its season opener against Illinois at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers played that game as scheduled, routing the Fighting Illini 45-7 behind redshirt freshman Graham Mertz’s five touchdown passes and 20-for-21 passing performance.
The virus quickly spread, and on Oct. 28 Wisconsin announced it was pausing football activities, including canceling the Oct. 31 game at Nebraska, because of positive tests among six players and six staff members, including coach Paul Chryst. A day later, the positive count rose to 16 (eight players, eight staff members) since Oct. 21.
The number of positive tests for the Badgers continued to rise, and on Nov. 3 it hit 28 (16 players, 12 staff members), prompting the school to cancel the Nov. 7 home game against Purdue.
The Badgers resumed limited on-field conditioning on Nov. 6, with players wearing masks and broken into small groups.
The positive count rose to 30 (17 players, 13 staff members) by Nov. 7, but there were days without a positive test. On Nov. 8-9, no new cases were detected. The Badgers returned to practice Nov. 9 and returned to play Nov. 14 with a 49-11 romp at Michigan.
Wisconsin (2-1) played again last Saturday, losing 17-7 at Northwestern in a game with Big Ten West title implications.
Then came Tuesday, when Wisconsin got the news that the Gophers (2-3) were canceling Saturday’s game. That will be the Badgers’ third canceled game, meaning they will not reach the six-game threshold to qualify for the Big Ten championship, unless the conference’s total average of games played for each team falls below six.
Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle said he would speak to his Wisconsin counterpart, Barry Alvarez, and Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren about the Gophers possibly playing Wisconsin on Dec. 19, championship week in the conference that is reserved for games between East and West division teams.
Chryst in early November stressed the importance of adapting to the shifting terrain brought on by COVID-19.
“We know that we’re going through something that is pretty unique, and the best thing we can do is try to do our best and move forward knowing you’ve got to be flexible [when] things come up,” he said.
The virus hits Maryland
After a blowout loss at Northwestern to start the season, the Terrapins rebounded with a 42-41 overtime win over the Gophers on Oct. 30 and a 35-19 triumph at Penn State on Nov. 7.
Four days later, however, Maryland paused the season and canceled the Nov. 14 home game against Ohio State because of positive COVID-19 tests by eight players over the previous seven days.
On Nov. 19, Maryland canceled the Nov. 21 home game against Michigan State after an additional 15 players and seven staff members, including coach Mike Locksley, tested positive. That brought the total positives to 30 (23 players, seven staff members) in the two-week span.
As positive tests decreased, the Terrapins returned to practice Monday for the first time since Nov. 10. Locksley’s isolation period ends Friday, and he is expected to travel with the team for its game at Indiana on Saturday.
“It’s business as usual,” Locksley said Tuesday, during a season that is anything but usual.