The team, which was scheduled to fly to Illinois on Saturday morning for the noon ET game, announced the cancellation late Friday night. Team physician Dr. Jim Borchers on Saturday said No. 4 Ohio State, which "essentially had no cases of COVID-19" all season, initially saw an increase on Wednesday and exceeded the Big Ten's threshold for population positivity rate after Friday's results. Head coach Ryan Day is among those who tested positive for COVID-19.
Ohio State declined to reveal specific numbers or names about who tested positive, saying only that players, coaches and support staff in its 170-member Tier 1 congregant group all have been impacted. Athletic director Gene Smith on Saturday repeatedly cited the rise in COVID-19 cases in Columbus and surrounding Franklin County in Ohio. The decisions to cancel and pause activities were made within the university because Ohio State exceeded only one of the Big Ten's two positivity rate benchmarks that would have forced the program to stop and pause for at least seven days.
"We're making a decision not just [based] on the thresholds, but we're making a decision based upon what we see," Smith said. "We're seeing, in our particular case, it's kind of a community type of spread. We didn't see spikes in specific areas. So, could we have played? Sure. Was it the right thing to play? No."
Smith said Ohio State is implementing enhanced PCR testing to complement the Big Ten's daily antigen testing. The team will evaluate when it can return to activities in several days, and possibly make a decision on the Michigan State game. Day on Saturday said Ohio State likely would need to return to practice by Thursday and have one rigorous workout plus a walk-through Friday to be ready for the Michigan State contest.
Day said the team is now communicating and meeting through Zoom.
"The thing that we fear the most, every time those test results come back, you hold your breath every day to see what's going on and how you're team's doing, and here we are this week," Day said. "... We're hoping to get some of these tests back, get some good news there, and then put the focus towards Michigan State."
Borchers said there were no concerns until Wednesday, but it wasn't enough to make them hit the brakes. The team proceeded with practices this past Thursday and Friday because it had not reached a concerning threshold yet. Day said players practiced without helmets on both days, wore masks and did not have physical contact with one another to limit the potential of spread.
"I want to be clear we never reached a threshold where we couldn't participate or practice until [Friday] afternoon," Borchers said. "This is not something that was going on on Tuesday. This was something that happened later in the week."
It wasn't until the results from Friday's PCR testing that "it became very clear we needed to pause," Borchers said. He confirmed Ohio State exceeded 7.5% in its population positivity rate, defined by the Big Ten as the number of positive individuals divided by total population at risk. Ohio State has not yet exceeded the 5% team positivity rate (number of positive tests divided by total number of tests administered). If both numbers are reached, Ohio State would be forced to stop all activities for a minimum of seven days before reassessing.
According to Borchers, none of the individuals at Ohio State who have tested positive have required significant medical treatment. Day, 41, said he is resting comfortably but has "an extremely heavy heart."
"The sacrifice has been made by so many," Day said, "and the anxiety over months and months and months of every day, getting test results back to make sure that the entire program is safe. And then to experience it this week, Thanksgiving week, I can't sit here and tell you that it's anything other than really, really hard. But, like I told the team, it's just another opportunity to get through some adversity."
Saturday's game marks the second Ohio State contest to be canceled this season. The Buckeyes (4-0) were unable to play Nov. 14 at Maryland because of COVID-19 concerns within the Terrapins' program. For Ohio State to qualify for the Big Ten championship game, it likely has to play both of its remaining regular-season games, on Dec. 5 at Michigan State and Dec. 12 at home versus rival Michigan.
According to the Big Ten, a team must play at least six games to be considered for participation in the championship game. However, if the average number of conference games played by all teams falls below six, then teams must play no less than two fewer conference games than the average number of conference games played by all teams (i.e., four games played if the conference average is six) to be considered. The champion will be determined in each division by its winning percentage, unless there is an unbalanced schedule because of the cancellation of games.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, 12 of the 14 games over the final two weeks would need to be canceled for the average to drop below 5.5 games per team. There have been six Big Ten games canceled through this week, so the average is currently 7.1. That would drop to exactly 7.0 if Ohio State doesn't play next week (if that's the only conference game canceled).
Smith said no conversations have occurred about changing either the six-game requirement or the 21-day requirement for student-athletes who test positive. While he said he understands the question, Smith said it's the last thing on his mind.
"Our objective now is to continue to focus on the health and safety of our players, to make sure that we provide an opportunity to potentially come back next weekend," Smith said. "The tactics and strategies we will put in place today, tomorrow and the next day is all with effort to ensure their safety and possibly give them a chance to compete next weekend. It's not about the Big Ten championship game, it's not about the CFP. It's not about those things. It's not about how many games we have to play. It's about one thing: Their health, their safety, and making sure each day we give them a chance to possibly play next weekend."
Borchers said Ohio State's positive cases haven't impacted one position group, and no "cluster" has been identified yet. Franklin County is currently reporting 700 cases per 100,000 individuals.
"We live in Franklin County, which has a Level 4, purple emergency rating with severe exposure and spread," Smith said. "This is our reality. We're struggling as a community to stop the spread of COVID-19. We're operating in a very challenging environment."
Smith said Ohio State needs to continue to test and see no more positives occur, make sure the Big Ten office is comfortable with its numbers, and monitor the positivity rate. Ohio State will test again on Sunday.
"We know where we are right now," he said. "We need to see if we have more and make sure the young men who have been negative continue to be negative. Our objective is to make sure they're all safe and healthy, but also to make sure that if we can play, when we go to East Lansing, we're going on a clean plane and we're going to play on a clean field."
Smith said it's a fluid situation and there is no way to project a timetable for the team's return. Maryland and Wisconsin both experienced COVID-19 outbreaks within their respective programs that forced them each to cancel two games. Minnesota this week canceled Saturday's game against Wisconsin and paused all activities until further notice. Most teams in college football that have experienced outbreaks have missed two weeks.
"It's going to be day to day," Smith said. "There's so much uncertainty here, I'm sorry. I can't say we have a certain day and time. We just don't have that."