Scott Frost
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Inside Badgers’ Decision to Cancel Wisconsin-Nebraska Game Amid COVID-19 Spike

October 28, 2020

Scott Frost has been a head football coach for five years. In four of those seasons, he’s had a game on his team’s schedule canceled.

First, it was two games in 2017 while coaching at UCF, the result of Hurricane Irma’s effects on Florida. Then, in 2018, his first year at Nebraska, the home-opener against Akron was called off because of prolonged lightning in the area. Now, a pandemic, in size and scope the world hadn’t seen in a century, has brought the ax down on another game.

University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank and Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez made the decision Wednesday to pause team activities within the football program for a minimum of seven days to curb what they considered a troubling rise in cases within the program.

In doing so, the game scheduled for 2:30 p.m. CT this Saturday between the Badgers and Huskers—Nebraska’s 2020 home-opener—has been canceled.

This was not a decision mandated by the Big Ten, Alvarez confirmed in a Zoom conference with media members Wednesday afternoon.

The Badgers currently find themselves in the Orange/Red testing category set by the Big Ten. That would put the team positivity rate between 2 and 5% and the population positivity rate above 7.5%. (More on those later.)

A Red/Red designation would mandate a shutdown of team activity.

A team in the Orange/Red category, per the Big Ten’s guide, would only have to “proceed with caution and enhance COVID-19 prevention (alter practice and meeting schedule, consider viability of continuing with scheduled competition).”

Wisconsin leadership opted for the safer route.

Alvarez outlined a timeline in which Wisconsin had one positive COVID-19 test result come back during the first month of testing and practicing. (Daily antigen testing began on Sept. 30.) As of Wednesday of last week, the program had one positive test.

For its season-opening game against Illinois on Friday, Oct. 23, Wisconsin had nearly a full roster. The Badgers won that game handily, 45-7.

In the days since, Wisconsin has returned 12 positive test results—six players and six coaches, including head coach Paul Chryst. Most notably, the Badgers’ starting quarterback for the Illinois game, Graham Mertz, returned two positive tests Sunday and Monday.

(The team did not test Saturday. The expectation is teams will test six days a week, with an off day falling on the day after competition.)

“We just felt with the number of positives in that short a timeline, the Chancellor and I felt we had an issue and we had to make this decision to get our arms around this and control the virus now before it got out of hand,” Alvarez said.

On Monday, in a different Zoom call with reporters, Chryst said he was confident this weekend’s game would be playable. He declined to comment on individual players or testing results. Frost said during his weekly press conference later that same day that “We have had false positives here too, so my guess is that’s what it is.” Even when reports suggested the game was in jeopardy, Nebraska’s outward-facing statement was that it was preparing as if it would play.

Wisconsin practiced Tuesday morning, but it did so because Chryst had returned a negative antigen test beforehand. A PCR test administered in the afternoon on Tuesday returned a positive result the following morning.

Alvarez was tested Wednesday. He’s expecting a result early Thursday morning. He also said there are still test results the Badgers are waiting on.

With 170 tests administered to teams daily across the league, to hit the 7.5% threshold in population positivity rate, a team would need to have roughly 13 positives among players and coaches to reach Red status. But, that doesn’t automatically trigger a cancellation.

The team positivity rate also has to reach Red status, which Wisconsin is not in.

The team positivity rate is calculated on a seven-day rolling average. In a full week, a team using all 170 tests a day would be looking at 1,020 tests total. To reach the 5% threshold set by the Big Ten, positives would have to reach or exceed 51. (Shouts to the Omaha World-Herald’s Sam McKewon for doing the math.)

What wasn’t answered by either Alvarez or Chryst (who also spoke during the Zoom session) was whether Wisconsin is using its full allotment of 170 tests. Per the Big Ten’s policy, it doesn’t need to.

If a player tests positive, they must sit out for 21 days. But, athletes are not required to be tested within 90 days of recovering from the virus. Dating back to June, the Badgers have had 56 players test positive for the virus, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Point being: the Badgers are in a tough spot, but they were the ones who erred on the side of caution. The Big Ten did not intervene and force their hand, at least not according to Alvarez.

“We just felt it was important, if we wanted to continue play for the year, to make this move right now and control the virus at this point,” he said.

There’s some uncertainty on the Wisconsin side of things as to when their seven-day clock begins. That uncertainty would seem to signal next Saturday’s game against Purdue is also a bit up in the air. If the Badgers returned to practice immediately, that would leave the team with just two days to prepare.

“We’ll see where we are as far as testing and we’ll make that decision as we move closer to the game,” Alvarez said.

Chryst said coaches have to be out for 10 days once they’ve tested positive. Though he wouldn’t get into specifics about how those who’d tested positive were doing, Chryst did say “We’ve been fortunate in a lot of ways” when asked about his players. He’s physically feeling “good.”

There was clear disappointment, though.

“I know why and I support and understand why we’re not (playing),” he said.

Alvarez called Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos Wednesday morning to inform him of the program’s decision.

“I thought Bill was very professional and understanding, and felt disappointed for us,” Alvarez said.

As of publication, no one from Nebraska leadership has made a public statement on the matter.

Per the Big Ten, cancellations brought on by the coronavirus are labeled a “no contest.”

When asked if that might change considering Wisconsin chose to pause team activities and was not required to, Chryst said “I honestly don’t know. I haven’t really asked that today.” ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg has reported that answer is no.

Another area that remains cloudy: exactly how the Badgers had contracted the virus. Alvarez declined to get into team routines and Chryst said he didn’t know if Wisconsin had experienced a “super-spreader” event. Players have seen group meals dashed in favor of pre-packaged meals with guys in groups no larger than 10.

“This is one part of this virus, it gets you in a number of different ways,” he said. “We don’t know. Did we have one super-spreader? … I don’t know ground zero or where it really started.”

From Nebraska’s vantage point, it now finds itself in an oddly familiar situation it would have preferred not soon revisit: life without football by way of a decision outside its control. At least for a week.

The Huskers will play Northwestern on the road on Nov. 7, but it will not be getting this Wisconsin game back.

“If you want to play and find ways to play, I think you’ll find ways to play,” head coach Scott Frost said last week before his team opened its season on the road against Ohio State. The Buckeyes were in lockstep with Nebraska as a program fighting during the offseason for the ability to play a season amid the coronavirus pandemic. Frost said he thought it would be difficult to reach Red/Red status.

“If you find ways and reasons to not play, I think you can accomplish that goal, too” he said.

Wisconsin proved after just one week how quickly your season can be jeopardized. It will be without its star quarterback for 21 days. It could be without other players for the same amount of time. With no flexibility to make up lost games in the Big Ten’s schedule, it could lose a quarter of its season if it can’t play the Purdue game.

If the Badgers play fewer than six games, they would need the average number of games played by other Big Ten teams to also dip below six or they wouldn’t be eligible to play for the Big Ten title game.

Trust that the Badgers didn’t take the decision to pause lightly.

“Personally, I think we’re a very good football team,” Alvarez said, when asked if it was hard balancing wanting to play with a responsibility to follow health and safety measures.“As you watch games … that first week there were so many mistakes made by so many people, whether it be turnovers, penalties, etc., and we played such a clean game. To turn around and not be able to play, or continue to practice right now, is very disappointing and frustrating.

“Your natural tendency is, ‘Let’s get back on the field and get back at it,’ but that’s where you have to put priorities in order and make sure our No. 1 concern is the health and safety of our athletes. That’s the priority that we’ll keep.”

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