No. 13 Wisconsin expects to return to play Saturday at Michigan after canceling its last two games due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the team.
“We feel confident that we have a handle on the situation and are excited to play this week at Michigan,” athletic director Barry Alvarez said Monday. “As we have done throughout, we will continue to monitor our testing results and base our decision on those results.”
Wisconsin officials said they have five active COVID-19 cases involving three staff members and two players. Five of the last six days have resulted in no positive tests. One staffer and one player have tested positive over the last week.
The Badgers have resumed regular game-week preparations and practiced Monday.
“Certainly it’s good to be back,” coach Paul Chryst said.
Wisconsin (1-0) hasn’t played since a season-opening 45-7 victory over Illinois on Oct. 23. The Badgers canceled games at Nebraska and at home with Purdue over the last two weeks.
Michigan would be the first team to face Wisconsin since the outbreak.
“I wouldn’t say I have any concerns,” Michigan defensive end Taylor Upshaw said shortly after the announcement. “I hope we get to play. I’m excited.”
There’s a possibility the Badgers might have quarterback Graham Mertz available against Michigan (1-2). Mertz went 20 of 21 and tied a school record by throwing five touchdown passes against Illinois in his first career start but tested positive afterward.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has reported that Mertz’s positive test came Oct. 24. Players who test positive can’t play for at least 21 days under Big Ten protocols, with that 21-day period starting the day they test positive. Saturday’s game would come after the 21-day window for anyone who tested positive on Oct. 24.
“I think he’ll be able to have some practice,” Chryst said. “We’ll see if it’s enough practice time. You don’t know that. Each guy’s a little bit different. How do they handle all of it? We’ll kind of see on him and a couple of other guys who were kind of in that early group of it.”
Whether Mertz plays or not, Chryst conceded that Wisconsin likely would be playing at far less than full strength.
“We’ll have some guys probably get some snaps who three weeks ago weren’t probably in that position,” Chryst said.
As recently as last week, Wisconsin had 27 active COVID-19 cases involving 15 players and 12 staffers. Chryst also tested positive at one point, though he said Monday he “didn’t have a lot of symptoms.”
Wisconsin can’t afford to cancel another game if it wants to compete for a Big Ten title.
The Big Ten requires teams to play at least six games to be eligible for the league championship game. If the average number of conference games played by all Big Ten teams is below six, programs must play no less than two fewer league games than that average to be considered.
Wisconsin will play six games before the Big Ten’s championship weekend only if it has no more cancellations.
The Badgers have taken steps to try to keep reducing their number of active cases.
Wisconsin is holding team and position-specific meetings virtually. The Badgers also are using additional locker-room space adjacent to their usual locker room to make sure players can practice social distancing.
“Obviously we don’t want to repeat what happened,” Chryst said. “I don’t know that we can be in control of of everything, but you want to do all you can.”