Straight from the coach’s mouth: Minnesota plans to be in Lincoln, Nebraska, playing a football game on Saturday.
Gopher head coach PJ Fleck met with members of the media Monday morning and shared that his team was able to go through a full practice on Sunday, the first time back on the field for them in at least two weeks.
Minnesota hasn’t played a football game since Nov. 20. It’s scheduled tilt with Northwestern this past weekend was canceled due to rising COVID cases on the team.
Last Monday, Minnesota reported seven new confirmed cases, which brought the total number of positives within the program to 47—21 players and 26 staff members—since Nov. 19. The Gophers paused all team activities on Tuesday, Nov. 24, canceling their rivalry game with Wisconsin on Nov. 28 in the process.
Fleck said the program has had only two positive tests in the last seven days, and zero as of Dec. 3.
“It’s never our call whether we play or not, but from this point, as of right now, everything changes by the minute, we plan on playing against Nebraska on Saturday and we’ve prepared accordingly,” Fleck said.
Now, Minnesota will be severely short-handed for the game.
Due to the Big Ten’s 21-day sit-out policy for players who test positive for the virus, Fleck revealed that the Gophers will be without “more than 20-plus” players. That doesn’t factor injuries into the equation or anything else. More than 20 guys just because of the COVID policy in the league.
“This is what it is, but our players and the guys that were out there did a great job practicing on Sunday and really look forward to playing again,” he said.
They can do so even with so many players sitting out because they aren’t in the Big Ten’s “Red/Red” testing threshold. The league looks at percentages on a seven-day rolling average, so because Minnesota has only had two in the last seven days (and none as of Dec. 3), they’re well in the clear to play as things currently stand.
As far as the coaching staff is concerned, Fleck expects to have “most, if not all,” of his staff available, though he acknowledged things can change there, too. The sit-out period for coaches is shorter than for players at just 10 days.
“It’s unpredictable, so for me to tell you that everyone will be back, coaching-wise, would be inaccurate just based on today being Monday,” he said. “We would hope that everybody will be back on Saturday, but that’s to be determined.”
Minnesota’s situation is worth monitoring for another reason as well: what happens on Dec. 19?
A casualty of the Minnesota outbreak was the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Minnesota and Wisconsin have played every year since 1890, with the lone exception being 1906. The cancellation of this year’s contest snapped a streak of 113 consecutive meetings. Minnesota wants that opportunity back, and it’s eyeballing the Dec. 19 plus-one weekend the Big Ten originally stated would be West vs. East showdowns up and down the standings.
“Wisconsin-Minnesota is one of the greatest rivalries in all of college football, and we would love to play that game,” Fleck said. “I think Wisconsin would say the exact same thing, so to say there’s no lobbying I would say is inaccurate because I think both teams really want to play that game.”
In terms of what the Big Ten has publicly revealed about the week, those matchups could be played at neutral sites, they could be played at home stadiums of the team with the better record, they could be played on Friday, they could be played on Saturday, they could be makeup games, they could be cross-overs.
Which is to say the Big Ten has revealed nothing to anyone. The only information that has filtered out is that the league would prefer not to schedule rematches. For example: Nebraska (2-4) playing Penn State (2-5) again.
“Less than two weeks out, nobody knows who they’re going to play, and I think that’s across the board,” Fleck said of that weekend.
It was right in line with what Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said Monday when asked about the uncertainty of the ninth weekend. “Count me in the group that doesn’t know much,” he said.
Asked if he’d gotten any feedback on whether the Big Ten was open to West-West matchups as opposed to the original plan, he said he hadn’t asked. But…
“In the beginning it was going to be West vs. East, but I hope as we go through a season of change, why not?” he said.
Should the league go that route, it might affect Nebraska, but it most likely wouldn’t.
The Big Ten could, for instance, give Gopher and Badger fans their rivalry meeting, then make up the canceled Maryland-Michigan State game, then have Purdue play Illinois, Michigan play Penn State, and Nebraska play Rutgers, all while avoiding rematches and keep with the spirit of the original plan. (Hat tip to Scott Dochterman for laying this out.)
Northwestern and Ohio State would meet for the Big Ten title.
Like Fleck said Monday: things change by the minute.
Most important, though: Nebraska seems set to have its Senior Day.
The Gophers and Huskers are scheduled to kick at 11 a.m. CT on Saturday.