The coronavirus pandemic has claimed its first Big Ten football game, and it’s going to cost Nebraska its scheduled home opener on Saturday.
The Halloween matchup between the Huskers and Wisconsin has been canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests and ongoing concerns within the UW program, the school announced Wednesday morning.
The decision to pause activities and cancel was made by Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and Chancellor Rebecca Blank, "in consultation with the Big Ten Conference," according to a UW news release.
The game will not be rescheduled. The Big Ten confirmed that the game will be considered a "no contest."
Nebraska has not commented on the cancellation as of Wednesday afternoon.
Alvarez said during an afternoon news conference that he called Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos early Wednesday morning — before the conference's standard 7 a.m. athletic director's call — to inform him of the decision.
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"Bill was very understanding, disappointed because we were supposed to have dinner on Friday night together," Alvarez said. "Bill was very professional and understanding, disappointed for us and, I'm sure, disappointed that we weren't ready to play a game."
Badger coach Paul Chryst on Monday expressed confidence that the game would be able to be played even among reports of trouble in his quarterback room.
However, Chryst later in the week found out he was among 12 people associated with the UW program (six players and six staffers, according to a school release) that tested positive for COVID-19 in the past five days. The school said more tests are pending and that it is pausing all team activities for seven days. He said during a Monday news conference that he felt fine physically — and he indicated none of the players or coaches who tested positive have had a significantly different experience than he has — but also disappointed.
"As we've gone about this, we were wanting the opportunity and our players want the opportunity to play," Chryst said. "Then, to not have that opportunity — and I know why and I support and understand why we're not — but when you have a hand in it, that's where there's disappointment."
Alvarez said the program had had just one positive test over the previous month, so the steep climb to 12 positives since Friday night's game caused him and Blank to feel as though they had to pause and attempt to "get our arms around," the outbreak.
The issues began Sunday night when reports surfaced that Badger redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz had tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday after throwing for five touchdowns in his starting debut Friday night against Illinois. Since then, Wisconsin’s next quarterback in line, Chase Wolf, also reportedly tested positive.
The Big Ten’s medical protocols have two different testing numbers that teams must report on a daily basis. They look like this:
Test positivity rate (number of positive tests divided by total number of tests administered):
* Green: 0-2%.
* Orange: 2-5%.
* Red: more than 5%.
Population positivity rate (number of positive individuals divided by total population at risk):
* Green: 0-3.5%.
* Orange: 3.5-7.5%.
* Red: more than 7.5%.
And while a team must halt practice and competition if it is in the red zone in both categories, that is not the only way for a game to be called off. The protocol says if a program is orange-orange or orange-red, it should do multiple things including "consider viability of continuing with scheduled competition."
It is unclear if Wisconsin had reached "red-red" as of Wednesday morning's decision, but the fact that they have additional tests pending suggests the school expects its numbers to continue to climb as the week progresses.
The Wisconsin State Journal on Tuesday reported that the Big Ten “is working on further clarifications to address situations when rates are in those ranges, giving school presidents and chancellors and athletic directors the latitude to consult with medical and public health officials to determine whether a game should be canceled.”
Last week, Nebraska coach Scott Frost said he did have concerns about the conference trying to fit nine games into a nine-week window.
“I think there’s concern,” he said. “I think if you want to play and you find ways to play, I think you’ll find ways to play. If you find ways and reasons to not play, I think you can accomplish that goal, too.”
This is the second time in three years that Nebraska has had a game canceled. Frost’s debut in 2018 against Akron was scuttled by lightning. That year, at least, the Huskers had a bye week later that they were able to fill in with FCS Bethune-Cookman.
The situation is much different given the Big Ten’s pandemic-shortened season. After the conference decided to eschew the 10-game schedule it had built that maximized flexibility because it didn’t feel like it had enough answers on rapid testing or potential side effects of the virus to start in September, it pushed the start date back to Oct. 24. That meant attempting to play a schedule that features nine games in nine weeks, with no wiggle room, up to a league title game on Dec. 19. That’s a hard deadline because currently the College Football Playoff committee is set to select its field on Dec. 20.
Nebraska was already on track to have its latest home opener since 1985 with the slated Halloween start and now it will have to wait an extra two weeks. The Huskers' next scheduled game is an 11 a.m. kickoff on Nov. 7 at Northwestern before the team returns to Lincoln for a Nov. 14 matchup against Penn State.
The conference has guidelines for determining divisional champions and tiebreakers in the event that not every team is able to play every game. A team will have to play at least six games in order to be eligible for the title game unless the average games played in the conference falls below six. The Big Ten also has a series of tiebreakers involved to help determine a division champion in the event teams play an unequal number of games.
Here's what people are saying following the cancellation of Nebraska and Wisconsin's Halloween game
The most precious commodity of this football season is flexibility. The Big Ten lost it Aug. 11. Why there wasn't more of a desire within the league to simply pause and push back the initial start date 3-4 weeks is why we are where we are.— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) October 28, 2020
I have to write this or I won't be able to live with myself today. To Nebraska fans: Love your passion. You are always friendly as hell. But not every development/decision by the Big Ten is part of a conspiracy to stick it to your athletic department/teams.— Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) October 28, 2020
In reality, the #Huskers are catching a break by having a bye week following the Ohio State game. Remember, @coach_frost did not get an entire fall camp to prepare the team for the season. So this bonus week gives them a chance to better prepare for the remainder of the year.— Stuart Fagan (@StuartEFagan) October 28, 2020
Just imagine if Florida wasn't back to work this week and Missouri was sitting without a game this weekend...— Parker Gabriel (@HuskerExtraPG) October 28, 2020
Graham Mertz tested positive 10/24. He can ramp up under B1G rules and play vs. UM 21 days later on 11/14. Anybody whose initial antigen positive came Sunday or later, though, is out for that game.— Parker Gabriel (@HuskerExtraPG) October 28, 2020
Same kind of timeline/complications for any other team that has an outbreak.
So the @HuskerFBNation/@BadgerFootball game has been canceled.— Keith Malinak (@KeithMalinak) October 28, 2020
Perhaps if the @bigten press like @ByPatForde, @DesmondHoward, @ESPNBooger, @RealMikeWilbon & others hadn't spent weeks bashing all things #Huskers & @coach_frost we'd have more time/flexibility in the schedule. #GBR
This is why the Big Ten should have given itself flexibility. Could have shot for 10 games in 14 weeks, if needed.— David Eickholt (@DavidEickholt) October 27, 2020
My sense is Nebraska officials won't push back much on the rationale to cancel the Wisconsin game. We'll see on that. Could be wrong.— Steven M. Sipple (@HuskerExtraSip) October 28, 2020
The key question: Is there a possibility of Nebraska playing a non-con foe this weekend? Would the Big Ten allow it?
It SHOULD be allowed.
It is what it is. Time to pull out the video on Northwestern. Next week both teams lose a day due to the election. Time to prepare.— Huskers Gameday (@HuskersGameday) October 28, 2020
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.