“Could we have played? Sure,” Athletic Director Gene Smith said. “Was it the right thing to play? No.”
After a season of anxiety awaiting test results but of calm upon receiving them for one of the country’s biggest, loudest programs, alarm arrived beginning Wednesday and ramped up through the rest of the week. The red-zone number of positives did not come from the positive rates among players, athletic department physician James Borchers said, but from the Big Ten’s other metric: the general population of the football program, which numbers 170 people.
“We did cross that threshold,” Borchers said.
The Big Ten prescribes that threshold at 7.5 percent, whereas the threshold among players stands at 5 percent. If a program falls shy of the latter but crosses the former, the conference protocols recommend that the team “alter practice and meeting schedule” and “consider viability of continuing with scheduled competition.”
Even as the number of postponed or canceled games this season hit 100 this weekend, the Ohio State situation became the direst related to the College Football Playoff. Despite playing at least three fewer games than any other team in the top four and having had one game canceled already because of coronavirus issues at Maryland, the Buckeyes (4-0) held down No. 4 in the first rankings issued Tuesday. They need to play both of their remaining dates, against Michigan State and Michigan, to meet the Big Ten’s current requirement of six games for eligibility in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 19 in Indianapolis.
It could mean that, for the playoff, the selection committee must weigh a kingpin program based on a paucity of games while two other teams play for the Big Ten title, but Smith said he had begun no such discussion. “I get the question,” he said. “I’m very sensitive to that. But that’s not where we are.”
Where they are, he said repeatedly, is deep in the unknown. He said, “I have no clue what this afternoon or tomorrow will bring or what next week will bring,” and: “There’s too much uncertainty here. I’m sorry. We just have to look at each day and see what we’ve got.”
He said, “The main thing is to watch our positivity rate.”
He also said wistfully, in language once unimaginable, “We had an unbelievable run,” and by that he meant the lack of positive tests through the months before this week. Coach Ryan Day, who tested positive earlier this week, said likewise on the call, pointing to the program’s “unbelievable job” to this point and noting, “Every time those test results come back, you hold your breath every day.”
Such anxiety deepened this week. “We didn’t really have any concerns until Wednesday,” Borchers said. “And as we started to see a couple of things we had not seen before … I want to be clear: We never reached a threshold where we couldn’t participate or practice until yesterday afternoon.”
Day said that, beginning Wednesday, meetings had gone virtual and practice helmets had gone off. Body-to-body contact in practice had given way to the use of “trash cans.” Smith said of the planned trip to Champaign, “We had made adjustments on Friday to fly up on Saturday morning,” before calling off even that.
Smith and Borchers cited the rising cases in the county around Columbus. Smith noted Franklin County’s “Level 4, purple emergency rating” and said, “We’re operating in a very challenging environment.” Borchers added: “We live in one of the most hard-hit areas in the country,” expressing particular concern about “the number of individuals getting covid-19 outside of congregate settings.”
Borchers said the positive tests around the program affected no position group disproportionately and that none of those testing positive had required any “significant medical treatment.”
Now the paths forward for those testing positive will include mandatory 10-day isolations as part of the Big Ten policy of 21-day hiatuses. Asked to speculate on how the game at Michigan State could happen, Day said, “I think you could get it done by practicing Thursday, make sure you have a good hard practice on Thursday [and then a walk-through Friday].”
The second-year coach with the 17-1 record since taking over for Urban Meyer had advocated loudly for playing football this fall back in that window of late summer when the Big Ten had shelved this season until at least springtime. “I’m resting comfortably,” he said. “I have an extremely heavy heart, though.” He soon added: “I can’t sit here and tell you that it’s anything other than really, really hard,” and eventually, “I really believe that going through all this is going to make us all stronger.”