In the wake of canceling its game against Illinois, Ohio State officials addressed the uncertain path forward as it deals with a flurry of positive COVID-19 tests.
In a Zoom call on Saturday morning, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith stressed that it’s the “primary focus” for the program to play at Michigan State on Saturday. Smith and team doctor James Borchers stressed the uncertainty that accompanies that goal, as they said it’s impossible to identify mile markers that will allow that to happen.
School officials confirmed that the program passed the threshold of 7.5% of the 170 Tier 1 personnel – players, coaches and staff – testing positive for COVID-19. That means that at least 12 players or staff members have tested positive. Smith said that there’s been no distinct pattern from the tests so far, like a cluster or a position group.
Smith summed up the decision to cancel the game at Illinois on Saturday this way, noting that it was Ohio State’s decision to call off the game and not the Big Ten’s decision. “Could we have played? Sure. Was it the right thing to play? No.”
The Ohio State program is on pause and coach Ryan Day has tested positive for the virus. Day said he’s “resting comfortably” at home but has an “extremely heavy heart.” He stressed what a difficult week it has been for the program, as players were away from home on Thanksgiving while dealing with the fallout. “I can’t sit here and tell you it’s anything but really, really hard,” Day said.
The issues for Ohio State began to emerge on Wednesday. And Day said that limited practices, with the players needing to wear masks the entire time and working out against trash cans instead of one-on-one drills. It’s unclear when Ohio State’s players will be allowed back in the facility. “This certainly has been a very trying week for all of us here,” Day said.
Smith, Borchers and Day were all understandably hesitant to give timelines or predict when the Buckeyes could be back. But Day did note that he felt like Ohio State would be able to play on Saturday at Michigan State if they got in one hard practice on Thursday and walked through on Friday. It’s unclear if Day would be back to coach in that game.
Ohio State declined to get into specifics on the number of players and staff impacted by the virus and contract tracing. Borchers said everybody who has been diagnosed is doing well. According to Big Ten protocols, the “earliest a student-athlete can return to game competition is 21 days following a COVID-19 positive diagnosis.”
Smith made clear that the big-picture issues that have become talking points about the Buckeyes aren’t his focus right now. Ohio State is 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country, which has the Buckeyes in position to capture a playoff bid if they can continue to play and win.
If Ohio State misses another game, it’d be below the minimum threshold to play in the Big Ten title game. Missing the title game wouldn't necessarily eliminate the Buckeyes from the playoff, but it would make for a more muddled College Football Playoff case.
The team will also be dealing with the 21-day absence of players, a stringent rule the Big Ten adopted that’s more cautious than its conference peers.
Smith said there have been “no conversations” with the Big Ten about adjusting any restrictions. “I understand that question and people are thinking about that,” Smith said. “That’s not where we are.”
He added when asked about the 21-day rule: “We made a decision late last night to do what we did. The last thing on my mind is what you just asked. Might that come up later at some point? No question.”
Borchers stressed that Ohio State’s program is operating amid “one of the most hard-hit areas of the country,” as Franklin County is considered a purple “Level 4” public emergency for severe exposure and spread of COVID-19.
Smith indicated there’s concern that Ohio State football could have more positive tests in the upcoming days, which will ultimately play a big role in determining if the Buckeyes can go play at Michigan State. Ohio State wants to be sure they have a “clean plane” and “clean field” for that trip.
“We know where we are right now,” Smith said. “We need to see if we have more.”
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