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Virus forces Gophers to cancel game vs. No. 16 Northwestern

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Minnesota linebacker Josh Aune (29) holds the ball after he intercepted a Purdue pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 34-31. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

Minnesota announced Monday it has called off this weekend's game against No. 16 Northwestern, the second straight cancellation for the Gophers due to a spike in COVID-19 cases within the program.

University officials made the decision in consultation with the Big Ten after seven additional positive cases were confirmed. The Wildcats, who lead the West Division by one game at 5-1, were scheduled to play Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Those Gophers who've contracted the virus have experienced “very, very mild symptoms,” according to coach P.J. Fleck.

College football is limping toward the postseason in late December as multiple programs deal with COVID-19 outbreaks and contact tracing protocols. Four games on this week’s schedule have been postponed or canceled. Over the last three weeks, 52 games have been called off because of COVID-19 issues out of 179 that were scheduled. Since late August, the total number of canceled or postponed games is 103.

Minnesota's football team has turned up 47 positive cases since Nov. 19 — 21 players and 26 staff members. The Gophers paused all team activities six days ago, when they canceled the annual rivalry game at Wisconsin. Minnesota also said it will hold all meetings virtually for the rest of the season. Left on the schedule is a game at Nebraska on Dec. 12 and a to-be-determined cross-division opponent on Dec. 19.

“There’s not a lot we can do about it. Nobody’s doing anything wrong. The virus remains undefeated,” Fleck said on his weekly radio appearance on KFAN-FM. “We are in a major city, surrounded by a lot of people.”

The university is working with the state health department to isolate and treat the individuals who’ve tested positive. Last week, Minnesota added testing beyond the conference’s established protocols.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff continues to be our main priority,” athletic director Mark Coyle said. “The last couple of days have shown a decrease in positive cases, but not to the point where we are able to return to competition."

Coyle said the Gophers are aiming to play Nebraska as scheduled, and Fleck said the team is game-planning for the Huskers.

The virus has done a number on the Big Ten race, with six cancellations so far. The 18th-ranked Badgers have likely become ineligible for the conference championship because they haven't played enough games. East Division leader and third-ranked Ohio State, which had to cancel its last game against Illinois, would be in danger of that fate with one more cancellation.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

The pandemic is also disrupting the early days of the college basketball season, with coaches scrambling to fill holes in the schedule. The 21st-ranked Oregon men’s basketball program announced it would play two games in Omaha, Nebraska — against Missouri on Wednesday and Seton Hall on Friday.

Oregon is yet to open its basketball season because of the COVID-19-related cancelations of multi-team events the Ducks hoped to play in as well as a game against Eastern Washington.

Ducks coach Dana Altman was the longtime coach at Creighton, in Omaha, before leaving for Oregon and he has remained close friends with athletic director Bruce Rasmussen.

Seton Hall (0-1), like Creighton, plays in the Big East. Rasmussen served as the middleman to get the Ducks and Pirates together on Creighton's home court at the CHI Health Center.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense for Oregon to go all the way to New Jersey or for Seton Hall to go all the way to Oregon,” Rasmussen said, “so we helped them get the game here.”

Oregon scheduled the impromptu game against Missouri on its own and might look for more games in Omaha after the Seton Hall game.

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