Washington was supposed to open its 2020 football season against Michigan on Sept. 5.
Then Washington was supposed to open its 2020 season against Stanford on Sept. 26.
Then Washington was supposed to open its 2020 season against Cal on Nov. 7.
After all of that, the Washington Huskies are still waiting.
On Thursday, less than 24 hours after the Cal Golden Bears announced that a player on their team had tested positive for COVID-19, Saturday night’s season opener has been canceled and declared a no contest.
It’s the 41st FBS game nationally — and first in the Pac-12’s seven-game, seven-week sprint — to be either postponed or canceled.
“The Pac-12 has approved a request from Cal to cancel the Washington at Cal football game scheduled for November 7,” a Pac-12 Conference statement on Thursday read.
“This decision was made under the Pac-12’s football game cancellation policy due to Cal not having the minimum number of scholarship players available for the game as a result of a positive football student-athlete COVID-19 case and resulting isolation of additional football student-athletes under contact tracing protocols. Under Conference policy, the game will be declared a no contest.”
In a university release, Cal stated the decision was “due to the Golden Bears’ inability to field a competitive roster following the results of one positive COVID-19 test and subsequent contact tracing.”
On Thursday, after being asked his opinion on the Pac-12 statement asserting Cal requested the game be canceled, visibly frustrated Bears head coach Justin Wilcox said: “We didn’t ‘request to cancel the game.’ We weren’t able to play the game. Maybe that’s what the paperwork says. Nobody here woke up this morning hoping not to play. I think that’s probably a poor choice of words. The contact tracing eliminated a lot of players and an entire position group. So it was not going to be feasible.”
The positive test was the program’s first since the start of daily testing at the beginning of October. As of Thursday afternoon, the student who tested positive remains asymptomatic.
Following a positive daily antigen test, the result was confirmed with a subsequent PCR test. Cal then followed contact tracing and quarantining protocols from University Health Services Infection Control and Berkeley Public Health, which eliminated too many players to field a competitive team. The Cal players currently in quarantine have all continually tested negative for COVID-19, Wilcox said.
“We were looking forward to having those contact traced players coming back, especially since they have been continuing to test negative,” he added. “But we learned today that that wasn’t going to be possible.”
The Pac-12’s minimum roster thresholds call for at least 53 scholarship players, seven scholarship offensive linemen, one scholarship quarterback and four scholarship defensive linemen to play a game.
It’s worth emphasizing that the specific contact tracing protocols that prevented Saturday’s game from being played belong to Berkeley Public Health, rather than the Pac-12 Conference. Numerous college football games have already been played nationally involving teams that had players test positive the same week.
“The frustrating part is you see the differences throughout the state and the country on how these contact tracing processes are taking place,” Wilcox said. “I think that’s where the players especially can get a little bit frustrated, as you can imagine. There’s no consistency there.
“I have talked to a number of (colleagues in coaching) — some in conference, some out of conference. I absolutely agree that there are different interpretations of contact tracing throughout the country and potentially within each state.”
UW was also willing to host the game on short notice at Husky Stadium, according to a source. But Berkeley Public Health policy would also prohibit the quarantined players from participating in a game at a road venue.
And so, despite having just one positive test, Wilcox acknowledged it’s possible Cal’s game at Arizona State on Nov. 14 might not be played, either. And he maintains the program did everything possible to follow the provided social distancing protocols.
“When they walk to the stadium, there’s (socially distanced) dots that they stand on before they get their tests,” Wilcox said. “When we have meetings, they’re in the concourse and they sit six feet apart. When we go to the field, they don’t go to the locker room. So they have their pads on the side. We don’t have shared water bottles.
“So there’s all these steps that have been taken based on the guidelines given by the state and local public health authority to mitigate the risk and also the contact tracing element, and unfortunately, that wasn’t quite enough.”
The result, of course, affects more than just the Cal Golden Bears.
Eight-hundred miles north, the Washington Huskies are still waiting.
“Our students, coaches and staff have put in an incredible amount of hard work to get to this point and we are deeply disappointed they won’t have the opportunity to compete Saturday in Berkeley,” UW athletic director Jen Cohen said in a statement. “I’m also disappointed for Husky Nation, they have been so patient and supportive, and we know they couldn’t wait to cheer on our Dawgs this weekend.
“With that said, the policies and protocols developed by the Pac-12, local and state officials placed the health and safety of students, coaches and staff at the forefront. We will now turn our attention to next week and start our preparations for Oregon State.”
Meanwhile, UW’s athletic department is dealing with COVID-19 issues of its own. The Husky baseball program officially paused offseason workouts on Wednesday following an uptick in positive COVID-19 cases. The university reported nine active positive cases inside the athletic department, though it declined to state which programs those cases are connected to.
In a media session on Thursday morning, prior to the game’s cancellation, UW football coach Jimmy Lake said positive cases within the baseball program are not expected to infiltrate his team’s internal bubble.
“It’s interesting, a negative around here for years has been that the football team’s over here (in our facilities on campus), and we don’t see anybody,” Lake said. “There’s nobody that comes over here. We don’t leave our little footprint here. So that’s been a negative for years, where we don’t get to go hang out with baseball coaches, volleyball coaches and see the other student-athletes.
“But now it’s obviously a positive. We are literally in our own bubble over here. No other student-athletes come over here and our guys don’t leave this footprint at all. So with this coronavirus situation, us being over here by ourselves has turned into a positive.”
Should UW and Cal both finish atop the North division with a 5-0 record, by the way, the tiebreaker determining which program would appear in the Pac-12 title game is the teams’ respective College Football Playoff rankings. The only issue there is that those rankings won’t be unveiled until Tuesday, Dec. 15 — just three days before the championship game is scheduled to take place.
That’s a tough turnaround, but one the Huskies would take.
UW’s football program is now scheduled to open its 2020 season inside Husky Stadium against Oregon State on Nov. 14. Lake will have six Pac-12 games (at most) to make a positive first impression.
The goal, of course, will be to beat the Beavers.
But it might be a win for Washington to even play the game.