UW football has paused all team-related activities due to an increase in positive COVID-19 cases within its program, a university release stated Wednesday morning. The status of Saturday’s game at Oregon remains unclear. The Huskies will not practice Wednesday and will undergo additional PCR testing.
UW will receive the results of Wednesday morning’s round of PCR tests on Thursday, according to a source inside the program. A decision on Saturday’s game is unlikely to be made before that point.
On Wednesday evening, UW reported there are currently 11 active positive COVID-19 cases in the athletics department — six more than a week ago. It’s university policy not to specify how many cases are tied to each program, though a source indicated that all 11 cases are not tied to UW football. Since athletes began returning to campus on June 15, 5,950 PCR tests have been administered with 64 total positive cases (1.07%).
“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,” UW head coach Jimmy Lake said on his radio show on 950 KJR on Wednesday evening. “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.”
In an interview with Oregonian columnist John Canzano on 750 The Game in Portland, UW athletic director Jen Cohen said one of her first calls Wednesday went to Oregon AD Rob Mullens.
“I just hated calling him, because I’ve been on the other end of this,” Cohen said. “We’ve had two games canceled when our students were healthy, and I care about all students so I feel for his student-athletes. So I just wanted to give him an early heads-up that we had a situation, but that we were going to fight like hell to safely play this football game.”
This is the first time this season that Washington (3-1) — which had games against California and Washington State canceled due to COVID-19 issues with its opponent — has had to pause team activities. The Husky baseball program also suspended its offseason workouts on Nov. 4, following positive COVID-19 cases and subsequent contact tracing.
Following last Saturday’s 31-26 loss to Stanford, redshirt junior wide receiver Ty Jones acknowledged ongoing COVID-19 issues within the team — stating “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.
UW coach Jimmy Lake has said repeatedly that he will not comment on injury- or illness-related absences within his program to maintain a competitive advantage. When asked last Saturday night how severely his team was 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.”
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 had to cancel its next game against Colorado due to “a number of positive” COVID-19 cases and subsequent contact tracing.
Before 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.”
The Huskies are still scheduled (for now) to hit the road to meet rival Oregon (3-2) inside Autzen Stadium at 1 p.m. Saturday. If the game is played, the winner will represent the Pac-12 North in the conference title game on Dec. 18.
Should the game be canceled, Washington — which has the highest winning percentage (.750) in its division — would win the Pac-12 North by default.
But that certainly doesn’t mean the Huskies are ducking the Ducks.
“I can tell you that I’ve had conversations with our football coach multiple times today, and all he wants to do and all these student-athletes want to do is play this game,” Cohen said on 750 The Game. “They want to do it for the program and for each other and for our fans. We want that for Oregon, too. There’s no conspiracy theory here. That’s ridiculous.
“These kids have worked so hard. I don’t think people realize the sacrifices students have made to have this opportunity. They are getting an opportunity, but nobody’s trying to avoid a game. We’re Huskies. We’re gritty. We’re tough. These are the types of games we want to play in.”
The Pac-12 Conference requires each program to have 53 scholarship players available — including one quarterback, seven offensive linemen and four defensive linemen — to participate in a game.
Should the Huskies be unable to play this weekend, their status for the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 18 would also be in doubt. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) informed the White House that it will soon issue new guidelines reducing the number of days close contacts should quarantine following a suspected exposure, according to CNN. Instead of 14 days, the new guidelines will recommend a quarantine of 7-10 days — including seven with a negative test.
However, King County — which oversees the UW football program’s COVID-19 protocols — has yet to support any updated contact tracing quarantine guidelines and still requires a 14-day quarantine for close contacts, according to a source. That would make it impossible for any Husky football players who begin quarantine this week to return by Dec. 18. The CDC’s website continues to recommend a 14-day quarantine for close contacts as well.
The prospect of pushing back the Pac-12 title game has been raised within the conference, but it’s unclear whether that’s a viable option.
It’s also possible that, even if Washington wins the Pac-12 North, the Huskies might not qualify for the conference title game at all. Pac-12 policy states that, “in the event that the average number of conference games falls to four 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 games or more this week would drive the average number of conference games to four or below. And currently, the teams with the two top 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 Friday night.
Meanwhile, it’s unknown whether Washington will play this weekend — or next. The Huskies’ season might have unexpectedly ended against Stanford on Senior Day.
“If we’re going to reach our goals, we have to protect the team by not bringing the virus into this building,” Lake said on Sept. 29, following his team’s second fall practice. “We have to protect the team by not getting the virus outside this building and spreading it to your roommates. We have to insulate ourselves and create our own bubble here at the University of Washington football program.
“The team that does that the best in the Pac-12 is most likely going to be holding up that trophy.”