Nearly three weeks and 49 COVID-19 cases later, the Gophers football team is ready play Saturday at Nebraska.
Coach P.J. Fleck addressed the media Monday in his usual game-week video news conference, his first since Nov. 23, before the Gophers canceled two games in the midst of the Big Ten's largest reported coronavirus outbreak. Beyond testing updates every couple days and a few radio interviews, the program has been largely silent since going dark Nov. 24.
But that quiet time wasn't idle time, as Fleck explained. The team returned to light acclimatization workouts last Wednesday, slowly ramping up the intensity. It started with conditioning in small groups outdoors with the facility still on lockdown, then adding in the weight room, then individual instruction, then a walkthrough, finally culminating in a full practice Sunday.
That bodes well for Saturday's kickoff at Nebraska. That, and Fleck saying there have been no positive cases as of this past Thursday and only two positives in the past seven days — the time frame the Big Ten uses for its shutdown protocols.
"Our players and the guys that were out there did a great job practicing on Sunday and really look forward to playing again," Fleck said. "It's never our call whether we play or not but, again, as from this point as of right now, everything changes by the minute, but we plan on playing against Nebraska on Saturday. And we prepared accordingly."
The Gophers missed two games during their outbreak, their rivalry game at Wisconsin Nov. 28 and this past weekend's game against Big Ten West champion Northwestern. In their most recent game, their Nov. 20 victory over Purdue, the Gophers missed 22 players, about half from injuries and half from positive COVID-19 tests. But some were from a couple weeks earlier with players still sitting out 21 days for isolation, cardiac testing and general recovery, per Big Ten policy. Three staff members, including offensive line coach Brian Callahan, had also tested positive.
When the Gophers take on the Cornhuskers, they will miss more than 20 players from COVID-19 positive tests alone, Fleck said. He added he expected most if not all of his coaching staff, who only need to sit out 10 days for a positive result, to coach Saturday, barring any symptom setbacks.
The football team first announced a temporary pause to team activities the evening of Nov. 23 before fully shuttering the next day with 15 positive cases from nine players and six staff members. The athletics department added another 10 — three players and seven staff — on Nov. 25 and another 15 — eight players and seven staff — Nov. 28. On Nov. 30, the department announced seven more cases from one player and six staff members. A release from this past Thursday added just two more players.
Of the Gophers' 49 cases since Nov. 19, 23 have been players and 26 have been staff.
Fleck said he has tried to reinforce to his players and the public that anyone who tested positive on his team didn't do anything wrong, something he feels is an implied stigma of young people acting irresponsibly during a pandemic.
"I'm the one that when they do test positive, I see them, I talk to them on FaceTime," Fleck said. "And I see the tears, and I see the disappointment. And I see that, 'Coach, I have no idea where I even got it.' "
For several of these recent positive players, their 2020 season is likely through because of the long sit-out period. With bowl games dwindling and the Gophers' record at 2-3, only two games remain: Nebraska and a to-be-determined matchup Dec. 19.
The Big Ten initially planned that as an East-vs.-West showdown based on the conference standings. But Fleck and athletic director Mark Coyle have made it clear to the conference they would rather see a rescheduled game against Wisconsin in that slot. Otherwise 2020 will mark only the second time in 130 years and the first since 1906 that the Gophers-Badgers rivalry won't proceed.
"Wisconsin-Minnesota is one of the greatest rivalries in all of college football, and we would love to play that game," Fleck said. "And I think Wisconsin would say the exact same thing. So to say there's not lobbying, I would say is inaccurate, because I think both teams really want to play that game."
Fleck's not sure if the logistics will work out or if the conference will jump on board. But he's remaining optimistic.
"Nobody knows what's going to happen," Fleck said. "… But I hope as we kind of go through, and in a season of change and uncertainty, that, why not?"
Ibrahim a semifinalist
Mohamed Ibrahim is one of 10 finalists for the Doak Walker Award, presented annually to college football's top running back. The Gophers junior averages 163.4 yards per game, topping the nation for all players with five or more games. He is tied for sixth in the country with 13 rushing touchdowns.