The cancellation probably leaves the Badgers, who suffered a damaging loss last week to Northwestern, with almost no shot at reaching the Big Ten championship game. The development also adds to a growing list of college football games scheduled for Thanksgiving week that have been postponed or canceled because of the pandemic.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff has always been our main priority,” Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle said Tuesday in a statement. “We have experienced an increase in positive cases recently and have made the responsible decision to pause team activities. We will continue to rely on the guidance of our medical experts as we navigate the next several days. We are doing everything we possibly can to miss the fewest amount of days possible."
Minnesota announced that nine football players and six staff members had tested positive within the past five days and that the school was awaiting the results of tests that might provide confirmation of more positive cases.
“There was a sudden increase in positive cases,” said Brad Nelson, the Gophers’ medical director, “and this pause will allow the team to focus on stopping the spread of the virus.”
In the most-played matchup of any at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, the Badgers and Gophers have met every year since 1890 except for 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt suspended college football rivalry games to help stem a wave of player injuries and deaths. Wisconsin, which leads the series 61-60-8, and Minnesota have played for the Paul Bunyan’s Axe trophy since 1948, before that vying for the “Slab of Bacon” trophy. Even with that one-year departure, it was the longest-running FBS series that had been played continuously.
In response to the pandemic, the Big Ten initially canceled fall sports, including football, before deciding to play a nine-game, conference-only season that started Oct. 23. The slate leaves little room for postponements, and Big Ten teams must play at six games this season to be considered for the conference championship game unless the average number of games played for all Big Ten teams falls below six.
As a result of their own coronavirus outbreak, the 2-1 Badgers had two games canceled after playing their season opener, and with only two games left on their schedule they can’t get to six before Dec. 19, when the title game is to be played along with other conference matchups. Northwestern’s win over the Badgers last week means the 5-0 Wildcats only need to win one of their remaining three games, all against teams with losing records, to lock up the Big Ten West division and reach the championship game.
Like the Big Ten, the Pac-12 also reversed course, kicking off a delayed, truncated football season in November. The pandemic immediately began causing cancellations, the latest of which was a game between Utah and Arizona State that had been pushed back from Saturday to Sunday to give the Sun Devils more time to let players affected by an outbreak become available to play.
On Tuesday evening, Arizona State Athletic Director Ray Anderson said his school was forced to invoke the conference’s cancellation policy because the team did not have “the minimum number of scholarship players available on account of return-to-play protocols involving CDC-prescribed quarantines by virtue of contact tracing and cardiac testing evaluation results.”
It was the third straight cancellation for the Sun Devils and the third overall for the Utes, who are now scheduled to visit Washington on Saturday. The Pac-12 had announced Sunday that the annual Apple Cup rivalry game between Washington and Washington State would not be staged because of positive tests and quarantining among players for the Cougars. USC’s game Saturday against Colorado could be in jeopardy after the Trojans announced Tuesday that a member of the team who traveled for a game last week against Utah had tested positive and was symptomatic.
Other FBS games scheduled for this week that were postponed or canceled for pandemic-related reasons, following dozens of similar decisions throughout the season, include:
- San Diego State at Fresno State
- Miami at Wake Forest
- Louisiana Tech at Florida International
- Southern Miss at UAB
- Tulsa at Houston
- Western Kentucky at Charlotte
In addition, an outbreak among the Arkansas Razorbacks led the SEC to postpone their game this week against Missouri and reshuffle its schedule. Missouri is now set to play Saturday against Vanderbilt, whose previously scheduled game this week against Tennessee was postponed and might be made up in December.
Wisconsin Coach Paul Chryst expressed hope Tuesday that “everyone in the Minnesota football program is healthy and that those affected make a complete recovery,” adding that he and his team were disappointed in “not being able to play this weekend.”
“This is a great rivalry that is exciting for players and fans on both sides,” Chryst said. He added that the Badgers would “continue to practice this week and turn our attention” to a Dec. 5 game against No. 12 Indiana.