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Gophers forced to cancel game against Badgers after outbreak of COVID-19 cases

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota
Nov 30, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck watches game action during the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Gophers won’t be playing for Paul Bunyan’s Axe this season.

The university announced late Tuesday afternoon that it “will pause all team-related activities as it responds to positive COVID-19 cases in the program,” and that Saturday’s game at Wisconsin will be canceled. The Big Ten is not rescheduling games that can’t be played because of the coronavirus, instead ruling them as a no contest.

In the past five days, nine athletes and six staff members from the Gophers have tested positive for COVID-19. That was followed by additional presumptive positive tests on Tuesday that must be confirmed. The Gophers were without 20-plus players for a win over Purdue last Friday. The university did not reveal how many of those absences were related to the coronavirus and how many were because of injury.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff has always been our main priority,” Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said in a statement. “We have experienced an increase in positive cases recently and have made the responsible decision to pause team activities. We will continue to rely on the guidance of our medical experts as we navigate the next several days. We are doing everything we possibly can to miss the fewest amount of days possible. Our goal is to be healthy enough and ready to compete on December 5 against Northwestern.”

In a news release, the university announced that in addition to the Big Ten’s established daily antigen testing it also will implement PCR testing two times each week for members of the football program.

The Gophers are 2-3 in the pandemic shortened-season with two games remaining on their schedule. Minnesota will play host to Northwestern on Dec. 5 and at Nebraska on Dec. 12. The Badgers are 2-1 having already had two games canceled earlier this season after several players and staff members contracted the coronavirus.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes will always come first,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said in a statement. “Like almost every program in the country, we have been affected on some level by COVID-19 every week this season, but these last few days have resulted in more cases than we have previously seen.

“I am disappointed for our student-athletes and our fans that we will not be able to compete on Saturday, but we need to focus on the health of our student-athletes and staff, which means stopping the spread of the virus. I support the decision made by our administration and medical professionals in consultation with the Big Ten Conference, and I want to thank our athletic trainers and team doctors for everything they are doing to support our program. We will return when it is determined safe to do so by medical experts.”

The Gophers have played the Badgers 129 times in football and the rivalry for the Axe dates to the 1948 season. The Badgers lead the all-time series 61-60-8 and beat Minnesota, 38-17, last season at TCF Bank Stadium in a game that decided the champion of the Big Ten West.

Losing this game means Wisconsin will be ineligible to play in the Big Ten title game because it won’t have the required six games needed to qualify. Northwestern (5-0) beat Wisconsin, 17-7, on Saturday and appears headed for the conference championship game.