Another rivalry game is gone.
A day after Washington (3-1) paused all team-related football activities due to an increase in positive COVID-19 cases within its program, Saturday’s game at Oregon has been canceled and declared a no contest.
The Pac-12 requires each team to have 53 available scholarship players — including one quarterback, seven offensive linemen and four defensive linemen — for a game. According to a source inside the program, the Huskies were “well below” the 53-scholarship minimum.
“I’m so disappointed for everyone involved here,” UW athletics director Jen Cohen said in a statement. “Every year our student-athletes, coaches, staff and Husky Nation circle this game on our calendar and so look forward to this amazing rivalry. The student-athletes from both schools have worked so hard, and I’m just really disheartened we are this point where we are unable to play due to our COVID-19 positives within the program.
“But we will always put the health and well-being of our students, coaches and staff as our greatest priority when making decisions. We will continue to work in collaboration with our medical professionals as they advise us on how to best move forward.”
On Wednesday evening, UW reported 11 active positive COVID-19 within its athletics department — six more than a week ago. However, a source also indicated not all 11 cases can be traced to the football program. It’s university policy not to specify how many cases are tied to each team.
Since UW athletes began returning to practice on June 15, 559 athletes have received a total of 5,950 PCR tests — with 64 positive cases (1.07%).
It’s unclear whether the Huskies — who, based on winning percentage, have won the Pac-12 North — will be cleared to participate in the conference title game on Dec. 18.
“We are disappointed for our players and fans and for our opponent that our game will not be played this weekend,” UW coach Jimmy Lake said in a statement. “We are doing everything we can to resume football activities as soon as we can safely do so.”
UW had its amended season opener at Cal and the Apple Cup against Washington State canceled because of COVID-19 concerns tied to its opponents. The Husky baseball program also suspended its offseason workouts on Nov. 4, following positive COVID-19 cases and subsequent contact tracing.
“The health and safety of all student-athletes is always the top priority, and our thoughts are with those at Washington and everywhere who have been impacted by this virus,” Oregon athletics director Rob Mullens said in a statement. “We are disappointed for our Oregon football student-athletes who have done everything right and who have been fully committed to all safety protocols from the start.
“Our team was excited for the opportunity to play for the Pac-12 North Division title this weekend in this great rivalry, and we will continue to practice in anticipation of our next game.”
Lake’s policy is not to comment on injury- or illness-related absences within his program to maintain a competitive advantage. However, following last Saturday’s 31-26 loss to Stanford, redshirt junior wide receiver Ty Jones acknowledged that “it’s tough when we got guys coming out (of the lineup) due to coronavirus.”
Several players in UW’s two-deeps — including outside linebackers Ryan Bowman and Cooper McDonald, wide receiver Puka Nacua and quarterback Ethan Garbers — missed the Stanford game for unspecified reasons.
When asked Saturday night whether his team has been significantly impacted by COVID-19 leading up to the game, Lake said: “Just like the whole country, we’re all dealing with issues — whether it’s injuries or the pandemic — and we’ll continue to deal with that for the rest of the season.”
However, Lake was much more forthcoming regarding the severity of those issues on his radio show on 950 KJR on Wednesday evening.
“I really can’t (pinpoint why the positive tests are happening), and that’s what’s really baffling our medical professionals here in the building,” Lake said. “I think that’s one reason why we still were able to get our game off last week and the week before, because (the positive tests) were just so random. It would be one thing if it was just one position group and it was just spreading like wildfire. Well, then you know there was a couple guys that weren’t doing it the right way. But through their investigation and their contact tracing, it has not happened that way, and it’s really baffling all of us how it’s happening and how these select people are getting it.
“I’ll say this: The really good news on all this is our guys have had hardly any symptoms whatsoever. They’ve been almost 100% asymptomatic. And really, throughout this whole year, our staff and our players, nobody has become seriously ill because of this disease.”
After the Apple Cup was canceled, UW hosted Utah — a team that was forced to cancel its first two games due to COVID-19 issues — on Nov. 28. The week prior, the Utes opened their season at home against a USC team that then had to cancel its next game against Colorado due to “a number of positive” COVID-19 cases and subsequent contact tracing.
Prior to the Utah game, Lake said “I feel very confident in the Pac-12 testing protocols that we have put in place. Everyone’s getting tested exactly the same way we are getting tested, so I feel very, very confident that on game day we will not have anybody that has the virus (on the field), and neither will our opponent.”
Contact-tracing protocols might also make it difficult for the Huskies to return for the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 18. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a 14-day quarantine for close contacts following a suspected exposure, and King County Public Health and UW continue to adhere to that protocol.
Even if UW is cleared to play Dec. 18, there’s no guarantee the Huskies will qualify for the conference title game. Pac-12 policy states that, “in the event that the average number of conference games falls to 4 or below, the two teams with the best winning percentage (both divisional and cross-divisional) within the conference will participate in the Pac- 12 Football Championship Game (regardless of division affiliation).”
A net-loss of three Pac-12 games or more this week would drive the average number of conference games to four or below. The teams with the top two winning percentages are Pac-12 South contenders USC (4-0) and Colorado (3-0). The Trojans play at rival UCLA on Saturday afternoon, while the Buffs host Utah on Saturday morning.
Which all serves to puncture the social-media theory that UW might purposefully avoid playing Oregon to ensure a path to the Pac-12 title game.
“Let me clear something up,” tweeted Christin Molden, the mother of UW defensive back Elijah Molden, wife of Duck Hall of Famer Alex Molden and an Oregon alum. “We haven’t seen our son in almost 6 (months) to protect the football ‘bubble.’ Players sacrifice DAILY, to keep games going. NOBODY is lacking in incentive to play. We want the game to happen as badly as Duck fans do.
“It’s a pandemic, not a conspiracy.”
On Thursday, that pandemic claimed another game.