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Sports >  NCAA

UW out of Pac-12 title game due to COVID-19 spike; Oregon will play USC

UPDATED: Mon., Dec. 14, 2020

Washington coach Jimmy Lake, left, stands on the sideline during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Utah, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Seattle.  (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)
Washington coach Jimmy Lake, left, stands on the sideline during the first half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Utah, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

At 7:20 a.m., 3,900 doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine arrived at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

At 11:04 a.m., the Washington football team officially withdrew from Friday night’s Pac-12 championship game due to a recent surge of positive cases inside its program.

It was an unprecedented Monday morning in an unprecedented year.

The latter development, at least, was also unsurprising. Washington paused all team-related activities on Wednesday after a spike in positive COVID-19 cases the day before. Its game at rival Oregon – scheduled for Saturday – was wiped away barely 24 hours later. The 3-1 Huskies were declared North Division champions on Saturday night, but a Pac-12 championship game appearance against USC (5-0) was improbable at best, impossible at worst.

The Pac-12 requires 53 available scholarship players – including one quarterback, seven offensive linemen and four defensive linemen – to qualify for competition. Due to a combination of positive cases and contact tracing, UW fell short of the 53-man minimum and had zero offensive linemen – whether scholarship players or walk-ons – available to play.

“Our offensive line is completely gone,” UW head coach Jimmy Lake confirmed in a virtual press conference Monday. “We cannot play. We cannot practice.”

Oregon (3-2), which finished second in the North, will therefore take the Huskies’ place in the Pac-12 title game – which kicks off at 5 p.m. Friday in Los Angeles and will be broadcast on Fox.

According to a source, Washington agreed to a noon Monday deadline to update the Pac-12 office on its status as the championship game approached. The Huskies didn’t need that long to know they couldn’t field a team by Friday.

“This virus is just spreading across the whole country,” Lake said, less than 30 minutes after the cancellation was announced. “It doesn’t cherry-pick where it’s going to go and where it’s not going to go. It goes everywhere.

“Our guys did a fantastic job, and they continue to do a really good job of doing all the stuff our medical team has advised them to do. Unfortunately, this virus is just … it’s wicked, and it’s extremely infectious. We’re seeing that right now, and we have been seeing that for months now with other teams that have felt the veracity of this thing.”

Indeed, UW has had two previous games canceled due to COVID-19 issues tied to its opponents – Cal on Nov. 7 and Washington State on Nov. 27. After the Apple Cup was canceled, Washington instead hosted Utah in a replacement game on Nov. 28 – erasing a 21-0 halftime deficit to earn a dramatic 24-21 win.

According to UW associate athletic director for health and wellness Rob Scheidegger, “We saw our first (positive COVID-19) cases way back the Friday before the game we played against Utah. But those cases were single, isolated cases. We worked really closely with our COVID response and prevention unit here on campus and (King County) Public Health to track those cases, and there wasn’t anything that specifically linked those cases together.”

The isolated cases carried into the following week, and UW rolled out a noticeably smaller roster for its 31-26 home loss to Stanford on Dec. 5.

At the time, Lake – who typically declines to comment on injury- or illness-related absences in order to maintain a competitive advantage – conceded only that, “just like the whole country, we’re all dealing with issues – whether it’s injuries or the pandemic – and we’ll continue to deal with that for the rest of the season.”

A more significant spike occurred three days later, forcing Washington to suspend team activities and eventually give up the Oregon game.

UW’s team – which, Lake reported Monday, is entirely in isolation – hasn’t practiced since Dec. 8.

“We need to have consecutive days of zero positive cases (to resume practice),” Lake said. “We’re planning on testing our whole team again tomorrow. But I can say this: Over the last week and a half or so, that has not been the case. We’ve had positives (every day or every other day).”

As for a specific number of positives, UW again declined to divulge those details. It’s university policy to provide a COVID-19 testing update pertaining to the entire athletic department on Wednesday evenings – although those reports do not specify how many cases are tied to each individual team.

Last Wednesday, UW Athletics reported 11 active positive COVID-19 cases – six more than a week prior.

However, a source also indicated that not all 11 cases could be traced to the football program.

Between June 15 – when UW athletes began returning to campus – and Dec. 9, 559 athletes received a total of 5,950 PCR tests, with 64 positive cases (1.07%).

Scheidegger confirmed Monday that Washington athletic department staff members have tested positive as well.

Lake did emphasize that the positive cases inside his program have not been accompanied by significant side effects.

“I know it’s devastating news to our team, our fans and everybody that supports Husky football (that Friday’s game was canceled),” he said. “I was looking forward to us trying to bring home that Pac-12 trophy this Friday.

“I do want to say that our team, the members that have tested positive, are doing well. They have mild symptoms and nothing extremely serious, and that’s really what I want the focus to be first and foremost. This has first always been about the health and safety of our players and our staff. Thankfully they are on the road to recovery, and we are excited to get those guys back here soon.”

That’s also because, in Lake’s eyes, the season is not over. Though several teams nationwide – including Stanford, Virginia, Boston College and Pitt – have announced their intention to bypass a bowl game, the Huskies coach said his team prefers to play.

“I don’t know if you guys know this, but our team loves to play football,” Lake said. “We love to go out there and compete and try to win championships and try to win bowl games. They were completely crushed that we could not play last week, and they are devastated now that we cannot play this Friday.

“So we are extremely excited at the possibility of getting everybody healthy, first and foremost, and then seeing which game that is and trying to go out there and bring that bowl game championship trophy back here to the University of Washington.”

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