The Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the most-played rivalry in major college football, has been canceled for 2020.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers and Wisconsin Badgers were scheduled to play Saturday afternoon, Nov. 28, in Madison, Wis., but an increase of COVID-19 cases has led to Minnesota pausing all-team related activities, the U of M said Tuesday.
The Gophers had played five straight games since the shortened and condensed season started in late October, while the Badgers called off two games earlier this year. This third no-contest puts Wisconsin below the Big Ten’s threshold of six total regular-season games to be eligible to play in the championship game.
The university said Tuesday that nine players and six staff members tested positive for COVID-19 in the last five days. Additional presumptive positive antigen tests were received Tuesday, and the school is awaiting confirmation with polymerase chain reaction test results on Wednesday.
“Based on what we’ve seen, we anticipate that what we saw (Tuesday) will come back positive,” Coyle said.
The Gophers said they hope to play again on Dec. 5 against Big Ten West-leading Northwestern at TCF Bank Stadium, but that likelihood will be based on those testing results and containing further spread of the virus.
Coyle, a member of the Big Ten’s medical subcommittee, said he talked a few times this week with Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, who shared his first-hand experience and processes with their cancellations against Nebraska on Oct. 31 and Purdue on Nov. 7.
“We’ll make sure we work with the conference and get best practices from Wisconsin and from Maryland and some other programs that have gone through a similar thing that we’re going through right now,” Coyle said.
Minnesota has dealt with an increase in COVID-19 cases since last week, when roughly 11 players as well as three staff members were absent for the 34-31 win over Purdue on Friday. They canceled practice Tuesday due to the presumptive positive cases and had initially hoped to return to practice on Wednesday.
The Gophers and Badgers have played each other every year since 1890, with one year off in 1906. This year would have been the 130th rivalry game, with Auburn-Georgia and two others having played 124 times going into this season.
The Big Ten currently has Dec. 19 set aside for crossover games between the East and West divisions. The No. 1 team in the West will play the East’s No.1 team and so on down the line.
But could Gophers-Badgers slide in there instead?
“I’ll have to, you know, have those conversations with (Big Ten) commissioner (Kevin) Warren, and coach Alvarez,” Coyle said. “Obviously, you know, we recognize, I think this is going to be the 130th meeting between the two programs. It’s a historic rivalry, and we understand that. Again, we’ll just have to work with the Big Ten Conference and have those conversations.”
Coyle said he made the decision with counsel from President Joan Gabel, Medical Director Dr. Brad Nelson and others on campus, while consulting Big Ten leaders.
Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck said in a statement: “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.”
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst, who had COVID during their outbreak, said in a statement : “First and foremost, I hope everyone in the Minnesota football program is safe and healthy and those affected make a complete recovery. It goes without saying that we are disappointed in not being able to play this weekend. This is a great rivalry that is exciting for players and fans on both sides.”