The Gophers football game against Big Ten West-leading Northwestern that had been scheduled for Saturday is a no-go.
The football team will miss a second consecutive game dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that has affected 47 players and staff, per an athletics department announcement. That’s the largest spread in the Big Ten so far, with previous team shutdowns at Wisconsin and Maryland peaking at 30 cases. Ohio State and Michigan are also paused with COVID-19 issues, but the extent of the spread is unclear.
In all, 21 Gophers players and 26 staff have tested positive since Nov. 19.
“There’s not a lot we can do about it. Nobody’s doing anything wrong,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck told KFAN on Monday morning. “… We’ve had 18,000 positive cases over a two-day span recently in Minnesota. So I mean, it’s definitely affecting the NFL, it’s affecting college football and definitely affecting our football team.”
Under Big Ten rules, the Northwestern game will go down as a “no contest” for both teams, just as last week’s Wisconsin game did. The Gophers (2-3) have one regular-season game left on their schedule, a Dec. 12 trip to Nebraska, followed by a to-be-determined game Dec. 19, planned as an East Division matchup based on the standings.
Fleck said on the radio broadcast the team intends to play the Nebraska game, having already focused its (virtual) team meetings on that opponent. Fleck added the team has no set return date for practice, instead relying on the department’s medical team for the go-ahead.
Even once the team has clearance, though, it will have to undergo a ramp-up period before full-scale training. Athletic director Mark Coyle said on WCCO radio Monday he hopes the team can start that process toward the end of this week, though the team will continue to hold meetings virtually for the rest of the season.
“We’ve had a high number of positive cases over the past week,” Coyle said. “And fortunately over the past couple of days, those have dropped dramatically.”
The Gophers haven’t practiced since just before the Nov. 20 Purdue game, when they missed 22 players from a combination of COVID-19 and injuries. Some of those positive tests were from weeks ago with players still sitting out the mandatory 21 days for isolation, cardiac testing and recovery, per Big Ten policy. But the team then paused team activities the evening of Nov. 23 before officially shutting down the next day, when nine players and six staff tested positive from Nov. 19 to 23.
Another 10 additional positives from three players and seven staff came back Wednesday. Then the department announced eight more players and seven staff Saturday. Gophers players spent Thanksgiving mostly separated from the team and family, some sharing meals via Zoom or FaceTime with their position groups and coaches.
Fleck said he is unsure of how the outbreak started and spread within his team, though it could have been a combination of factors such as living in an urban community and colder weather forcing indoor gathering.
“These are student-athletes. They live in dorms. They are around 55,000 other students somehow, someway, even if class is virtual,” Fleck said on KFAN, adding he did everything he could to create a synthetic bubble around his team but knew some kind of outbreak was likely inevitable.
Of the 47 cases, Fleck said most have exhibited mild symptoms with no serious complications. He said the whole team is disappointed to miss games, especially many of the recent positive players, who will likely miss the Nebraska game as well.
“Our players are champing at the bit to be able to get an opportunity to get back out there,” Fleck said on the radio. “But they also understand people looking out for them.”