Michigan cancels game against Ohio State

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

For the first time in more than a century, Ohio State's football team will not play Michigan.

The 2020 edition of The Game has been canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak among the Wolverines. Michigan called off last week's game against Maryland because of it and the COVID numbers have not improved enough to play this Saturday in Columbus.

More:What we know about Ohio State football's canceled game with Michigan, how it impacts the CFP and more

"The number of positive tests has continued to trend in an upward direction over the last seven days," Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said in a statement. "We have not been cleared to participate in practice at this time. Unfortunately, we will not be able to field a team due to COVID-19 positives and the associated quarantining required of close contact individuals. This decision is disappointing for our team and coaches but their health and safety is paramount, and it always will come first in our decision-making."

More:Ohio State's Ryan Day urges Big Ten to revisit football championship game requirements

Two sources with direct knowledge of the situation told the Detroit Free Press on Tuesday that at least 40 Michigan players were expected to miss the game because of either a COVID-19 positive test, contact tracing or an unrelated injury.

Ohio State's players and coaches spoke Tuesday in their regularly scheduled media availability on Zoom. Linebacker Justin Hilliard was speaking when he was informed of the cancellation.

Earlier, defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs was asked about the possibility of the game being called off.

More:Reactions: What next after Ohio State-Michigan cancellation threatens Buckeyes' CFP hopes?

"I don't want to go there because I got sick to my stomach when you said that," said Coombs, a Cincinnati native. "We're preparing to play. I think we're going to play. This game has been a part of my life since I was 5 years old. We all want to play this game. This game means a lot."

The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, which the teams regard as the biggest in college football, began in 1897. The teams have played every year starting in 1918, which happened to be during the last great pandemic. 

Ohio Stadium will sit empty Saturday instead of hosting the Ohio State-Michigan game.

Michigan has been Ohio State's final regular-season opponent since 1935. Not even a blizzard – the 1950 Snow Bowl – has stopped the game from being played until now.

The rivalry has ebbed and flowed, with Ohio State dominating this century. The Buckeyes have won 15 of the past 16, losing only in 2011. Urban Meyer won all seven Michigan games in his coaching tenure, and Ryan Day won his debut last year, 56-27.

More:Anatomy of a powerhouse: Bitter rivalry with Michigan has fueled Ohio State football

Ohio State was favored to win by about the same margin Saturday. The No. 4 Buckeyes (5-0) are a 30-point favorite, the largest point spread between the teams in modern history.

Michigan (2-4) has had a disastrous season amid questions about coach Jim Harbaugh's future. The Wolverines routed Minnesota in their opener, but their only other win was in three overtimes over Rutgers. In its last game, Michigan lost to previously winless Penn State.

More:Michigan football cancels Ohio State game as COVID-19 cases increase

More:Rob Oller: Time for Michigan to surrender for the good of The Game – and the Buckeyes

The options for a substitute opponent on Sunday are limited. Minnesota had to cancel its previous two games because of a COVID outbreak. If the Golden Gophers were again sidelined this week, one scenario had Rutgers filling in against Nebraska so that the Scarlet Knights' scheduled opponent -- Maryland -- could play Ohio State.

The Terrapins had to cancel their game against Ohio State in November because of COVID. But all indications are that Minnesota will be healthy enough to play Nebraska.

Even if Minnesota does play Nebraska, that doesn't necessarily close the door to Ohio State playing Maryland. Rutgers is one of only four Big Ten teams not to have missed a game, and the Scarlet Knights are feeling the toll physically. They might not be averse to not playing this week.

“I think (playing eight straight weeks against Big Ten teams) would be substantial, and then you throw the big one — COVID-19 — on top of it, and all the emotional, mental and physical wear and tear it’s had on them — I think it’s like anyone else in the country: it’s had an effect,’' Rutgers coach Greg Schiano told NJ.com.

“What we need to do is just lock in on what we’re doing this week. That’s what our culture is built on. ‘Chop’ is just that: focus on that spot and try to put the other stuff off to the side for now and we’ll get to it later. That’s literally what we’re trying to do here.’'

Another game in jeopardy this week is the Purdue-Indiana matchup. Purdue canceled its Tuesday practice because of COVID concerns. Indiana announced Tuesday evening that it would also pause activities because of a coronavirus outbreak.

As for the possibility of Ohio State playing a nonconference opponent, the Big Ten previously denied Nebraska's request to play Tennessee-Chattanooga opponent on Oct. 29 after Wisconsin was unable to play. That hasn't stopped Internet speculation about a possible matchup against Texas A&M, which was No. 5 in last week's College Football Playoff ranking. Mississippi can't play this week's game against the Aggies because of a COVID outbreak.

When Day was asked Tuesday before the Michigan cancellation about the six-game rule, he said he believes it should be reassessed. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who's among the most influential ADs in the conference, said last week that he would support changing it..

"I think it's one of those things that was put into place early on and decisions are made based on the information you have at the time," Day said.

He noted all the changes — the switch to a conference-only schedule and the season's cancellation and then reinstatement — the Big Ten made in its schedule to push for flexibility.

"There's been a lot of changes," he said. "I just think we have to take a hard look periodically at all this stuff, and think that this is one of those situations.

"f we don't quite get the games we need to get into the championship game, I think that needs to be looked at hard, just like anybody else in the conference. But there's no easy solution in times like this. I know those guys are going to come together and take a hard look at it and make sure that it was the right decision."

The Big Ten indicated it could revisit the issue.

The Big Ten released a statement regarding the OSU-Michigan cancellation.

"The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is one of the most important rivalries in all of sports," the conference said in a statement. "The conference shares the disappointment of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, partners and fans. The conference is committed to transparency and will continue to collaborate with its member institution stakeholders to determine Big Ten Championship Game participation requirements as well as tiebreakers."

In a session Tuesday afternoon during the Learfield IMG College Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said he would meet soon with league officials to discuss next steps.

"What we'll do as a conference is continually remain transparent," Warren said. "We'll continually communicate internally with our athletic directors and key stakeholders and our chancellors and presidents as we continue to make decisions that will impact our conference over the next weeks."

Warren noted that athletic directors, other administrators and coaches were involved in establishing the championship game requirements but indicated the need for flexibility.

"One of the things that I've said from Day 1 is that we're operating in unprecedented times," Warren said. "No one has ever played collegiate sports during the middle of a pandemic. And so we need to make sure that we remain fluid, that we do remain nimble during these times. This has never happened before. We're fortunate to be where we are today as far as being able to play the games that we've played."

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch