COVID-19 causes Gophers to cancel game with No. 18 Wisconsin

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For the first time in 114 years, the Minnesota-Wisconsin game has been bumped off the schedule.

Minnesota called off its annual battle with Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan’s Axe — which was slated for Saturday afternoon — due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases within the program. The decision made Tuesday by Minnesota will also likely make the 18th-ranked Badgers ineligible for the Big Ten championship game, because of two earlier canceled games.

Utah’s game against Arizona State — scheduled for Sunday — was also added Tuesday to the cancellation list because the Sun Devils still don’t have enough scholarship players available due to numerous COVID-19 cases that includes coach Herm Edwards.

By the end of the day, Utah was rescheduled to play Washington on Saturday. The Huskies had their scheduled game with Washington State canceled last Sunday.

No. 24 Tulsa’s game on Saturday against Houston also was postponed because of Houston’s COVID-19 issues.

Ten scheduled games this week involving FBS teams have been postponed or canceled. The Minnesota-Wisconsin game and the Utah-Arizona State game won’t be made up. Tulsa and Houston have no common open dates left and will only be able to reschedule the game if neither team is in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Dec. 19.

Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle and president Joan Gabel made the decision at the recommendation of athletic medical director Dr. Brad Nelson, who’s on the conference’s COVID-19 task force, after consultation with Big Ten officials.

Minnesota said nine players and six staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last five days. There were additional presumptive positive tests that turned up Wednesday from daily antigen testing, with the program awaiting confirmation of those results.

Coyle spoke several times this week with Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez about what the Badgers went through with their cancellations.

“Disappointment is a good word,” Coyle said, later adding: “It’s something that none of us can control. The virus remains undefeated. We just have to do everything we can to make sure that our student athletes and our coaches and staff are safe as possible.”

According to Big Ten protocols this season, teams must play at least six games to be eligible for the conference championship game on Dec. 19. If the average number of league games played by all Big Ten teams is below six, programs must play no less than two fewer league games than that average to be eligible.

Wisconsin (2-1) has only two games remaining on its schedule and won’t reach the six-game minimum. The Badgers dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak earlier this season that caused them to call off scheduled games with Nebraska and Purdue.

The Badgers’ only remaining games are at home against No. 12 Indiana (4-1) on Dec. 5 and at Iowa (3-2) on Dec. 12. Wisconsin’s Big Ten title bid was already jeopardized last week by losing 17-7 at Northwestern, a result that enabled the 11th-ranked Wildcats (5-0) to take command of the West Division race. Minnesota is scheduled to play Northwestern on Dec. 5.

“We will continue to rely on the guidance of our medical experts as we navigate the next several days,” Coyle said. “We are doing everything we possibly can to miss the fewest amount of days possible. Our goal is to be healthy enough and ready to compete on December 5 against Northwestern.”

This will mark the first gap in the Minnesota-Wisconsin series since 1906, when safety concerns around the sport kept some of the most intense rivalries from being played. The Gophers and Badgers have faced each other 129 times, making it the most-played series involving FBS teams. Wisconsin leads the series 61-60-8, winning 15 of the last 16 matchups.

The Badgers worked out Tuesday morning knowing Minnesota had called off its own practice that day, still hoping the game would go on Saturday as scheduled.

“Like I always say, it’s 2020,” Wisconsin offensive tackle Cole Van Lanen said before the game was officially canceled. “Things are out of our control.”

The Big Ten slated Dec. 19 for all 14 teams to play against the team finishing in the same place in the opposite division, including the annual championship game. The conference could always alter that plan and stage a Minnesota-Wisconsin redo, but Coyle declined to speculate on that.

Arizona State had its Nov. 14 home opener against California canceled after multiple positive tests left the Sun Devils short of the 53 player minimum required by the Pac-12. The Utah game was pushed back a day to Sunday to give the Sun Devils an extra day of practice after coming out of contract tracing protocols.

Edwards said this week he was feeling better and hoped to be back at practice this week, but contact tracing and cardio evaluation results left the Sun Devils without enough players to play.

The timing of the previously reported positive results coupled with the return-to-play guidelines have stretched over parts of three weeks, which makes it unsafe for several of our players to compete this Sunday,” Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said in a statement. “I sympathize for our student-athletes and everyone associated with Sun Devil Athletics, as well as Sun Devil Nation. This also has an impact on the University of Utah football program and we extend our appreciation for their understanding of the situation.”

Utah will instead travel to Seattle for a night game against the Huskies. Washington’s Apple Cup matchup against Washington State was canceled due to coronavirus issues with the Cougars and the Huskies were aggressive in seeking a replacement game.

“I’d like to thank the Pac-12 for their ability to work on behalf of students at both schools to make this happen, as well as our staff for all of their efforts behind-the-scenes to prepare for a home game,” Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen said.

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