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‘2020 football in a nutshell.’ Washington State-Cal canceled 90 minutes before kickoff due to Golden Bears’ COVID-19 issues

Cougars quarterback Jayden de Laura, right, laughs as he tosses a snowball at a photographer Saturday, missing on the playful attempt.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – Star running back Max Borghi and dozens of his Washington State teammates were jogging, stretching and tossing footballs Saturday on the icy field at Martin Stadium approximately 2 hours before kickoff against California.

In a matter of moments, the entire group disappeared into the home locker room. California equipment managers began packing up chairs and headsets on the visitor’s sideline. Washington State’s equipment staff started doing the same.

It encapsulated college sports in 2020 as appropriately as anything else: One minute there was a football game, the next there wasn’t.

About 90 minutes before the Cougars and Golden Bears were supposed to kick off on a snowy afternoon in Pullman, the game was canceled due to Cal not meeting the minimum number of scholarship student-athletes available as a result of COVID-19.

Borghi, who was returning from a back injury and would have played his first game in more than a calendar year, posted a real-time reaction from his Instagram account: “They really canceled this game, man.”

Teammate Renard Bell, the Pac-12’s active receiving leader, relayed the same feeling of disbelief from his social media account.

“Wow,” the receiver tweeted at 11:14 a.m., 27 minutes before an official announcement came from the Pac-12 Conference.

The Golden Bears had one positive COVID-19 case this morning, confirmed via PCR testing, resulting in the isolation of more football players due to contact tracing. According to The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, Cal would have had just two defensive linemen available to play the Cougars.

According to Jon Wilner of the Mercury-News in San Jose, California, Cal is believed to be the first instance of a Pac-12 team dropping out of a game after traveling. The Golden Bears flew to the Palouse Friday afternoon, but Cal players never made it to the field for pregame warmups Saturday morning. Justin Wilcox’s team was reportedly on a bus to Martin Stadium when it was learned a player had tested positive.

“The feelings we need to be worried about are our players,” WSU coach Nick Rolovich said on the pregame radio show. “I appreciate the fans’ disappointment and our coaches, but it’s time for us to be there for our kids because this has been incredibly hard on them, being away from home. You get to game day and it’s a whole different animal. That mindset and to just get it pulled away from you when guys are warming up on the field.

“It’s no fault of Cal. I’m not mad at them. This has been a real difficult year for everybody. My concern right now is the mental state of our team.”

The Cougars have had three of their six scheduled games canceled this season. WSU was supposed to travel to Stanford for a Nov. 21 game, but learned the day prior they wouldn’t meet the Pac-12’s threshold for scholarship players available. The Cougars’ COVID-19 issues bled into the following week, forcing the cancellation of the 113th Apple Cup, between WSU and Washington.

“We’ve just got to get through today,” WSU Athletic Director Pat Chun said on the radio show. “It’s only around, what, 12:20 (p.m.) right now and these guys have got to get through today because it’s a tough day for that football team.

“… With our team, to be Dec. 12 and have three games under our belt, this is 2020 football in a nutshell right now.”

WSU was coming off a 38-13 loss to USC in Los Angeles and eager to rebound against a 1-3 California team. Borghi, who’d missed three games with injury, was available to play for the first time this season. Photos of the running back’s No. 21 jersey hanging in the home locker room surfaced from the WSU football Instagram account.

Radio host Derek Deis suggested to Rolovich that Borghi was itching to play in his first game since the Dec. 27, 2019, Cheez-It Bowl in Phoenix.

“I think that’s a pretty strong itch,” Rolovich said. “That’s a competitive guys who is all Coug. He is so happy with his decision to come here and be part of this community and this university. He’s a real special guy. I feel like I’m a better coach and person by being around Max Borghi.”

WSU cornerback Jaylen Watson, who has been one of the team’s best defensive players in 2020, was also participating in pregame warmups Saturday morning after missing last week’s game at USC for reasons that remain undisclosed.

“To be honest with you, the thing that makes this one harder,” Rolovich said, “is I don’t think we were mentally prepared better for any football game this year than we were today, and the excitement to play was there, especially after getting boatraced by USC in the first quarter last week.”

Rolovich and Wilcox jokingly floated the idea of a snowball fight between the Pac-12 North foes. According to Chun, WSU players apparently initiated one themselves on the practice field adjacent to the Cougars’ locker room. Cougars quarterbacks Jayden de Laura, Cammon Cooper and Gunner Cruz were spotted by KREM-2 building a snowman after the game was called off.

As for competitive football, WSU should get one more chance, although Saturday’s cancellation was a reminder that nothing is guaranteed.

The Cougars will shift their attention to next weekend’s season finale against an opponent that will be determined in the next 24-48 hours. It should have been the seventh game for Rolovich’s team, but will now be just the fourth. With wins on Saturday and next week, WSU would have had an opportunity to finish one game over .500 but now can do no better than 2-2 with a victory in next week’s game.

“The message was, we take care of each other,” Rolovich said. “We do not compound this negative outcome with more negatives throughout the day or tonight. Be smart. You all know the difference between right and wrong, continue to make right and you will be better for it when we come out of this.”