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Badgers' football game against Minnesota canceled due to Gophers' COVID-19 situation

Badgers' football game against Minnesota canceled due to Gophers' COVID-19 situation

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Badgers 38, Golden Gophers 17

Wisconsin wide receiver Quintez Cephus (87) holds Paul Bunyan's Axe in celebration after Wisconsin beat Minnesota 38-17 last season. This year's game has been canceled due to Minnesota's COVID-19 situation. 

The University of Wisconsin football team will not play Minnesota on Saturday in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, marking the first time since 1906 the programs haven't played one another. 

The Golden Gophers are dealing with a number of COVID-19 cases within their program and the game at UW that was scheduled for Saturday was canceled. It will be a no contest, as all Big Ten Conference games canceled due to COVID-19 are this season. 

Minnesota issued a statement Tuesday evening saying nine student-athletes and six staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past five days, and there were more presumed positive tests Tuesday that are awaiting confirmation. The Gophers are pausing all team-related activities. 

Minnesota was without 22 players last week and coach P.J. Fleck said about half of them were out due to COVID-19. 

UW (2-1), ranked No. 18 in the AP Top 25, now has a maximum of five games on their schedule, which makes it ineligible for the Big Ten title game. If another conference team has to cancel its game this week, UW could play another opponent within the conference, but those decisions would need to be made by noon Wednesday, according to Big Ten policy.

"First and foremost I hope that everyone in the Minnesota football program is safe and healthy and those affected make a complete recovery," UW coach Paul Chryst said in a statement. "It goes without saying that we are disappointed in not being able to play this weekend. This is a great rivalry that is exciting for players and fans on both sides. We will continue to practice this week and turn our attention to getting ready for our next game, against Indiana on Dec. 5."

No. 12 Indiana (4-1) is set to visit Camp Randall at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 5. 

"The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff has always been our main priority," Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle said 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. Our goal is to be healthy enough and ready to compete on December 5 against Northwestern."

Dr. Brad Nelson, the medical director of the Gophers' athletic department, said the football team will implement twice-a-week PCR testing on top of the daily antigen testing already being conducted as the team works to returning to the field. 

Fleck — who said in a statement that agreed with the program's decision to pause activities and cancel the game at UW — was accidentally prophetic when he spoke with reporters Monday.

“We do everything we can as a staff, even when staff members are out, to keep things as fluid as possible because you’re balancing and constantly juggling who’s in and who’s out, which can be very mentally and emotionally taxing. But as the leader, you don’t want that to disrupt the preparation,” he said.

Hours later, preparation was disrupted when the Gophers announced their medical staff had advised them to cancel practice Tuesday and move to all virtual meetings due to positive tests. 

Until now, Minnesota hasn’t had a sudden outbreak like UW did between late October and early November, but has been dealing with virus-caused absences throughout the season. Multiple coaches and players have games due to COVID-19.

Fleck has side-stepped questions about the number of cases his team has had. He told reporters Monday that not releasing the names of players who have contracted the virus is a matter of medical privacy, and he's avoided releasing numbers so inaccurate information isn't spread. 

“Because they’re always changing, too. One thing is you throw a number out there — we talked about 20, right? Of players that weren’t playing? Within the next hour it went to 22 somehow, someway. And then it looks like, ‘Well that number wasn’t right, let’s backtrack and catch this number,’” Fleck said Monday.

“It’s very hard to just throw a number out there, especially when you’re dealing with something so fluid and minute-to-minute because I want you to get very accurate information. Like I said, about half of that 22 number was part of the COVID-19 protocols, but again stretched over that 21-day period somehow, someway of when they were in that protocol. It didn’t mean 22 players were testing positive that day for COVID-19.”

Minnesota released numbers regarding its football-program testing for the first time this season. UW and Maryland did as well when they canceled practices and games this year.

Losing its biggest rivalry game of the season is another blow for UW, which canceled against Nebraska and Purdue earlier this season due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

Speaking with reporters before the news broke Tuesday, Badgers senior left tackle Cole Van Lanen said the team will continue pushing through regardless of what happens this season.

"Like I always say, it’s 2020, things are out of our control," Van Lanen said. "We’re preparing to play on Saturday, a big game for us. I’m just excited to play. I really hope it happens. I just want another opportunity to play football this year. Praying that it happens. If it doesn’t, that’s out of our control so it is what it is. We’ll just keep going forward and make this the best season we can."

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