This is what we wanted, in all its tradition and excitement and, yes, even its imperfection. We knew chaos was a distinct possibility when the Big Ten reversed course on football.
One week of games provided a snapshot of what that might look like.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm watched his team’s opener against Iowa from his home after testing positive for COVID-19.
The Gophers suffered through an embarrassing display of special teams in a prime-time showcase on ABC after two kickers and two punters tested positive.
On Sunday, two Wisconsin newspapers reported that Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz, who had a record-setting debut against Illinois on Friday night in relief of injured starter Jack Coan, tested positive Saturday.
Mertz will undergo additional testing to determine if the first test was a false positive. If his positive is confirmed, Mertz will be sidelined for three games per Big Ten protocols, meaning the Badgers would have to play Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan with their No. 3 quarterback.
It’s only Week 2.
“That’s what makes 2020 so unpredictable,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “That’s what makes it really difficult. That’s what makes it challenging in a lot of different ways.”
The inevitable disruption caused by COVID-19 doesn’t mean this isn’t worth it, or that trying to conduct a season is a dumb idea. The Big Ten is right in giving this a chance with its extensive health protocols.
Millions of Big Ten fans wanted football to be played, myself included. Fans picketed for a season. Players sued for a season.
Now we must accept that things will go a little haywire.
Star players could get sidelined for one-third of the season. Depth charts will get stretched. Some teams inevitably will lose games or have their season altered or even derailed because of positive tests.
The unpredictable nature of this will be frustrating at times. Frustrating for coaches, for players, for fans, for anyone who loves the sport. Wins and losses still matter, they still count, but there must also be an acknowledgment that circumstances might produce some goofy results.
Graduate transfer Matthew Stephenson punted for the Gophers on Saturday. According to his school bio, Stephenson served as Middle Tennessee’s primary holder the last two seasons before transferring in January as a walk-on. Stephenson punted only 16 times in his career at Middle Tennessee.
There is no way on Earth that Fleck ever imagined having to use Stephenson as a punter against Michigan. Or that his team would be without two kickers, and a third — Brock Walker — would be so limited coming off sports hernia surgery that he could only squib kickoffs.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Fleck said. “Usually those are the guys who don’t get hurt. When they all get taken from you, that’s unique now. That makes decisionmaking a little bit different.”
Fleck showed so little faith in his punting that he called for a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from his own 31-yard line late in the first half, which seemed like a terrible idea.
To be clear, the Gophers didn’t lose by 25 points because they were forced to play without a few specialists. They lost because their defense got run over by the Wolverines.
But as kids say these days, coaches might have to get weird when dealing with starters being absent from week to week, some with little advance warning. Fleck said 2020 is challenging normal “philosophical approaches.”
My one concern — other than the obvious hope that everyone involved remains safe — is that teams might encounter a situation where they lose multiple players at a position and have to rely on someone who isn’t ready.
Redshirting freshmen — at least as many as usual — probably isn’t an option this season. Coaches know they must prepare as if every single player on the roster will play this season.
Every backup or scout team member is a potential starter. That No. 3 quarterback might be running onto the field at some point.
That’s not ideal, but this is what we wanted. A football season. Chaos comes with that.