Coronavirus outbreak might jeopardize Ohio State football's next game, postseason outlook

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
It is unclear when the Ohio State football team will be able to return to practice at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When coronavirus outbreaks sidelined Big Ten teams earlier in this pandemic-disrupted season, they caused those teams to miss consecutive games.

Wisconsin canceled a game against Purdue the week after it called off a Halloween trip to Nebraska.

Maryland was out for two straight weeks earlier this month, wiping out games against Ohio State and Michigan State.

Neither offers an encouraging precedent for the Buckeyes, who are looking to play at Michigan State on Saturday in the aftermath of the cancellation of their game at Illinois because of a spike in coronavirus cases within the program.

Jim Borchers, the Buckeyes’ head team physician, said Ohio State officials are well aware of the fallout from previous outbreaks in the conference, but it remains too early to forecast the likelihood of a return as they work to limit the spread of the virus among players, coaches and staff members.

“We’re going to continue to test, we’re going to continue to follow the data with our group, and we're going to move forward appropriately,” Borchers said. “Do I think it's going to be three or four days, or three or four weeks? I don't know, because I just don't know what we're going to see.”

Officials were hopeful over the weekend that a pause in organized team activities, which included calling off the trip to Illinois, would help the effort to control their outbreak and minimize the disruption in their schedule.

If the Buckeyes have another game canceled, it will damage their postseason possibilities.

Teams must play a minimum of six regular-season games in order to be eligible for the Big Ten championship game. Even after starting 4-0 and standing in first place in the East Division, Ohio State would fall below the requirement if either of their remaining two regular-season games is scrapped. Athletic director Gene Smith said Saturday that no discussions had been held with the conference about changing the rule for qualification.

A conference title is not a requisite for making the College Football Playoff, the four-team tournament that crowns a national champion. Alabama received a berth in 2017 despite not winning the Southeastern Conference, and the Buckeyes weren’t Big Ten champions in 2016 when they got in. There is no minimum game requirement, either. 

But if Ohio State remains idle, it lacks the opportunities to accumulate style points and impress the 13 members of the selection committee.

“The more games played, the more chances a team has to prove itself to the committee,” according to a Q&A released by the committee last week concerning its selection protocols for this season.

When the Buckeyes debuted at No. 4 in the rankings, they were effectively put on notice about the tenuous state of their position, holding on to the last spot needed to get into the playoff.

Gary Barta, the selection committee chairman and Iowa’s athletic director, noted a thin résumé outside of a win over Indiana, which was ranked No. 12 last week. He also raised concerns about their defense after it gave up almost 500 total yards of offense to the Hoosiers — in contrast to a prolific, high-scoring offense.

“We’re going to keep an eye on Ohio State’s defense,” Barta said. “There's a lot of talent there, as there always is, but just so far in the four games we've watched, that's certainly an area we're keeping an eye on.”

A matchup with Michigan State isn’t likely to provide a chance for a flashy win that would significantly bolster Ohio State's playoff credentials. The Spartans are only 2-3 in their first season under coach Mel Tucker.

But playing a game this week would allow the Buckeyes to address some of the question marks on defense and put them in position to qualify for the Big Ten championship game at home against Michigan the following week. Then would come a potential matchup against Northwestern, which remains in first place in the West Division and is the third-highest-ranked Big Ten team.  

The Buckeyes’ pathway back to the field first starts with a resumption of practice and workouts at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

Coach Ryan Day said the team could begin preparations for a trip to Michigan State as late as 48 hours ahead of Saturday’s kickoff.

“I think you could get it done by practicing Thursday,” Day said, “making sure you have a good, hard practice Thursday, and then a good walk-through on Friday, and then play on Saturday.”

Day will be out until at least Dec. 7 after he tested positive for the coronavirus last week. 

How soon a restart might occur will depend on the scale of the outbreak of coronavirus cases. 

Maryland and Wisconsin both missed two games because more people in the program tested positive for COVID-19 after the initial outbreak.   

The exact number of positive cases among the Buckeyes has not been disclosed, but Borchers said they had crossed a 7.5% positivity rate among the 170 members of the football program. That means at least 13 players, coaches and staff members have tested positive in recent days.

If the number grows, it will jeopardize a return for Ohio State and likely force a continued shutdown. 

Smith said the status of future games hinged on upcoming test results.

“The main thing is to watch our positivity rate," Smith said. "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.

“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 going to play with a clean field."