Virus-Stricken Wisconsin Cancels Nebraska Game

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The coronavirus pandemic, which has ravaged the Midwest in recent weeks, upended a regional rite — the Big Ten Conference football season — on Wednesday, when No. 9 Wisconsin canceled a game and suspended team activities because of an outbreak in its ranks.

Wisconsin, which reached the Rose Bowl last season and had been scheduled to play at Nebraska on Saturday, said that at least a dozen people associated with its football program had recently tested positive for the virus, including six players and Coach Paul Chryst.

“I am disappointed for our players and coaching staff who put so much into preparing to play each week,” Chryst, who said he was asymptomatic, said in a statement. “But the safety of everyone in our program has to be our top priority and I support the decision made to pause our team activities.”

Officials said that Wisconsin elected not to play the game in Lincoln, Neb., as its football program neared the conference’s threshold for an automatic cancellation.

The announcement from the university, which is in Madison, came as the state was struggling mightily to limit the spread of the virus. More than 217,000 cases have been reported in Wisconsin since the start of the pandemic, and nearly 2,000 people have died. The number of infections and deaths has swelled in October.

The Big Ten said in August that its 14 universities, including Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, would not compete this fall. It reversed its decision in September and said it would rely on daily testing — an approach that experts said could help detect outbreaks, but not leave teams immune from them — to help carry out a season.

Now, with the league’s season in just its second week, the Big Ten has a cancellation, and, a conference spokesman said, the abandoned game will be considered a no-contest. Since August, at least 37 games involving Football Bowl Subdivision teams have been canceled or postponed for virus-related reasons.

But the design of the Big Ten schedule, which called for each team to play eight games with no open weeks ahead of the league championship game in December, offered no possibility for rescheduling this weekend’s matchup. The turmoil could swell further if Wisconsin, the only ranked team in the Big Ten’s West Division, is unable to host Purdue on Nov. 7.

“We’ll see where we are as far as testing, and we’ll make that decision as we move closer to the game,” Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin’s athletic director, said on a Zoom call with reporters. “The most important thing right now is to quarantine our players and get this under control.”

Even if Wisconsin is able to play the Boilermakers, whose coach tested positive for the virus this month, it is sure to be short-handed. The Big Ten bars players found to have the virus from playing in games for at least 21 days after their positive test.

Alvarez, one of Chryst’s predecessors atop Wisconsin’s football program, said Wednesday that it was “very disappointing and frustrating” to have the season interrupted, particularly after the Badgers defeated Illinois, 45-7, in their season opener.

“Your natural tendency is, let’s get back on the field and get right back at it,” Alvarez said. “That’s where you have to put priorities in order and make sure that our No. 1 concern is the health and safety of our athletes.”

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