Even though Ohio State has paused football team activities for the time being, the Buckeyes are still hoping to be back on the field next weekend at Michigan State.
Each Big Ten team that was forced to cancel a game due to COVID-19 prior to this week has had to cancel a second game, too. Wisconsin missed two games in a row against Nebraska and Purdue, and Maryland missed two games in a row against Ohio State and Michigan State.
But despite canceling Saturday’s game against Illinois due to what athletic director Gene Smith described as a “concerning level” of positive COVID-19 cases within the program, Ohio State is still moving forward with a goal of being able to make the trip to East Lansing and play the Spartans next Saturday.
“Our objective now is to continue to focus on the health and safety of our players, to make sure that we provide an opportunity to potentially come back to compete next weekend,” Smith said Saturday. “The tactics and strategies that we will put in place today and tomorrow and the next day and so on is all with an effort to ensure their safety and possibly give them a chance to compete next weekend. That is our primary focus.”
In order for that to happen, the spike in positive cases that occurred over the past few days and prompted this week’s cancellation cannot continue. Whether Ohio State actually does end up playing Michigan State next week will depend largely upon whether the team’s positivity rate increases or decreases over the next week.
“I think we need to continue to test and see that there’s no more positives that occur,” Smith said. “We need to make sure that working with our conference office that they’re comfortable with what they’re doing. Obviously we’ll have a number of student-athletes who wouldn’t have an opportunity to compete because they would be still quarantined, but the main thing is to watch our positivity rate. We know where we are right now, we need to see if we have more, and make sure that the young men who have been negative continue to be negative. And our objective is to make sure that they’re all safe and healthy, but also to make sure that if we can play when we go to East Lansing, we’re going up on a clean plane and we’re gonna play with a clean field.”
As of Saturday, there was no timeline for when Ohio State could potentially be able to resume team activities. While Ohio State is currently above the team population positivity threshold of 7.5 percent, which led to the decision to cancel Saturday’s game, it is still below the total test positivity rate threshold of 5 percent. If Ohio State crossed both thresholds, it would be forced to shut down team activities for seven days, but no Big Ten team has crossed both thresholds yet this year, Smith said. As long as that remains the case at Ohio State, it will be up to Ohio State to determine when it’s safe to return to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and resume practices.
“We’re gonna have to go day-by-day,” Smith said. “See where we are today. We’ll test again tomorrow, we’ll see what we got with tests tomorrow. And so it’s gonna be day-to-day. I wish I could say it’s gonna be Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I really can’t. There’s too much uncertainty here. We just have to look at each day and see what we got.”
Team physician Jim Borchers also didn’t want to speculate about when team activities could resume, but said Ohio State will continue to make data-driven decisions and that his “hope is that we’re gonna get our student-athletes back to competition as quickly as possible.”
“We have said all along, we’ll be driven by the data that we have and we’ll look at the data and we’ll make decisions based on the data that we have,” Borchers said. “And we’ll try not to forecast what that data will be, because that gets us into trouble. So we’ll use the data that comes out of our process and make the best decisions moving forward as we move into this next week.”
From a team preparation standpoint, Ryan Day – who will not be able to coach against Michigan State if the game is played after he tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday – said he believes the Buckeyes could return to practice as late as Thursday and still be able to play the Spartans on Saturday. He’ll be continuing to conduct meetings with his team and staff through Zoom while he is in isolation, so they’ll start preparing as if they’re going to play the Spartans even though they likely won’t be able to return to the practice field for at least a few days.
“Our team right now, I know (acting head coach and defensive line coach Larry Johnson)’s doing a great job and so are the other assistant coaches with the team and communicating in a very day-to-day, shoot, hour-to-hour operation. But we’re communicating through Zoom and doing a lot of staff meetings. We’re gonna do a staff meeting later this afternoon and then a team meeting as well. Just continually communicating to our guys to make sure we’re all on the same page with where we’re at.”
Because players who test positive for COVID-19 cannot return to competition for 21 days under Big Ten protocol, Ohio State will be shorthanded if it plays Michigan State next week (and Michigan the week after). But the Buckeyes certainly still have incentive to want to play both of those games. If they miss either one of them, they’ll fall below six regular-season contests and won’t be eligible to play in the Big Ten Championship Game. Every game they miss could also decrease their likelihood of making the College Football Playoff, even if they win out.
Right now, however, Smith says his focus isn’t on conference championship or playoff implications.
“It’s not about the Big Ten Championship Game, it’s not about the CFP, it’s not about those things,” Smith said. “It’s not about how many games we have to play. It’s about one thing: Their health, their safety and making sure each day, we give them a chance to possibly play next weekend.
“And that’s our focus, 100 percent.”