LINCOLN — No treats for Nebraska football this Halloween. Just another nasty trick from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Huskers’ game Saturday against Wisconsin has been canceled and logged as “no contest” after UW announced on Wednesday that it was pausing team activities for seven days after at least six players and six staff members, including head coach Paul Chryst, had tested positive for the coronavirus. Additional test results are pending.
Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said he and UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank were making a “responsible” decision to pause in consultation with the Big Ten. In a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Alvarez said the team wanted to get its “arms around” the situation before it got out of hand.
“Talking to our medical people, as well as our chancellor, we just felt like, with those numbers, we had to get our arms around this, we needed to feel comfortable, particularly with as few as we had prior to (this week),” Alvarez said. “We just felt it was necessary to control it now and we’ll have an individual hotel room where all of our players will stay as we quarantine them.”
As of late Wednesday afternoon, no one from Nebraska, be it NU Athletic Director Bill Moos, Husker coach Scott Frost or university administrators, had commented about the cancellation. In a Zoom interview with reporters last week, however, Frost said he was “confident” in the Big Ten testing protocols while sending a note of concern about the likelihood of games being canceled.
“If you want to play, and find ways to play, I think you’ll find ways to play,” Frost said. “If you find ways and reasons to not play, I think you can accomplish that goal, too.”
When the Big Ten originally postponed its schedule back in August, Nebraska and Ohio State had briefly explored pursuing nonconference games only to be told by the league — because the conference was merely postponing and not canceling the season — that neither would be able to play outside the rules set forth by the conference in July. At the time, NU had contacted teams and interested partners, as well.
The Big Ten did not immediately respond to a World-Herald request asking whether the league would allow Nebraska to pursue a nonconference game. There are plenty of FCS teams — Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee-Chattanooga, for example — that have open dates for Halloween.
Badger players will quarantine for seven days, Alvarez said. He declined to speculate about whether Wisconsin would play its game against Purdue the following week.
UW had almost all of its roster available for last week’s 45-7 win over Illinois, but according to reports, the team’s Nos. 2 and 3 quarterbacks, Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf, both contracted the virus. The starting quarterback, Jack Coan, is out because of a foot injury.
While Chryst was confident Monday that his team could travel to Lincoln to play, reports surfaced by Tuesday afternoon suggesting that the game could be in question because Wisconsin’s weekly numbers were close to the Big Ten positive-test thresholds.
“When you have a hand in it, that’s where there’s a disappointment,” Chryst said in a press conference. Chryst said he has to get better at wearing a shield and a mask throughout workouts and games.
In the case of the “population positivity rate” — in which the total number of people testing positive was above 7.5% of those being tested that week — it’s not hard to hit the threshold. It takes a combination of roughly 13 players and coaches to hit the 7.5% positivity rate for “red” status. With 12, and more tests pending, Wisconsin is in essence at that figure now.
But a game would not definitively canceled by the league unless the PPR is above 7.5% and the “team positivity rate” is 5% or above. And crossing that threshold, when measured against the hundreds of tests administered daily, would almost take a major outbreak — dozens of players — this week, unless UW is testing such a small pool of players and coaches that 12 positives would trigger a red designation. Any player who tests positive must sit out 21 days, according to Big Ten rules.
Alvarez said his team is in the orange/red category — which means at least 2% of the team/staff has tested positive this week for COVID-19. That status does not trigger an automatic shutdown from the Big Ten.
In other words, the decision to cancel was left up to Wisconsin.
“The decision fell into the category where the chancellor and I had the prerogative to make the decision,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez called Moos early Wednesday — before their usual 7 a.m. Big Ten athletic directors meeting. Moos was “very understanding,” Alvarez said.
“We were supposed to have dinner Friday night together,” Alvarez said. “But I thought Bill was very professional and understanding. Disappointed for us and I’m sure disappointed that we weren’t going to play a game.”
Wisconsin did not announce where players may have contracted the virus.
“This virus, it gets you a number of different ways,” Chryst said. He said he didn’t know if Wisconsin had a “super spreader” event, but there were no group meals with more than 10 players in a room. Chryst said he found out the results of his PCR test Wednesday morning. He had previously tested negative with an antigen test. The Wisconsin coach said he has no symptoms of COVID-19. Neither do any of the other staff members, Chryst said.
“I don’t know ground zero,” Chryst said. The seven-day pause, Chryst said, is designed to “lower the curve.”
The state — and Dane County, where the university is situated — has experienced a surge in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks like much of the Midwest.
At least in the case of Dane County, the surge is the result of mass testing — more than 20,000 tests administered in the past week — and the subsequent discovery of more cases that tends to come with widespread testing. The rolling seven-day positivity rate in Dane County — estimated population 546,695 — has jumped over 6.5% only in the past few days. In Lancaster County — estimated population 287,000 — the positivity rate is routinely above 10%, and currently at 17.3% for the week.
While sports reporters on Twitter connected the situation of Wisconsin’s football team to the state’s positive-test surge, Dane County is arguably in a better position with COVID-19 than is Lancaster County, and the Wisconsin football team is getting tested six times per week while operating in relative seclusion from the rest of the community. Wisconsin did not allow the parents of players to enter Camp Randall Stadium for Friday’s win over Illinois as a precaution, for example.
For a Big Ten team to be considered eligible for the league title game — scheduled to be played Dec. 19 — it must play at least six of its eight games unless the average number of games played by other league teams dips below six games.