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Questions arise for Utes, Pac-12 in wake of Utah-Arizona game cancellation

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Cardboard cutouts of fans are seen in empty Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. Utah’s game versus the University of Arizona scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 7, was canceled Friday due to a number of positive COVID-19 cases among student-athletes within the football program.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The Utah Utes’ first game of the 2020 football season has been canceled, the school announced Friday.

There had been speculation in recent weeks that the Utes’ Saturday afternoon game against the Arizona Wildcats might be called off because of rising COVID-19 case counts in Salt Lake City, but the school said in its announcement that it was because of cases within the program over the last 24 hours.

“The decision was made following the Pac-12’s football game cancellation policy as Utah does not have the minimum number of scholarship student-athletes available for the game due to the positive cases and resulting isolation of additional football student-athletes under contact tracing protocols,” the statement read. “The health and safety of our student-athletes and all associated with our program is our highest priority and we will continue to follow all applicable Pac-12 and local health policies and guidelines.”

The Utah-Arizona game, which was scheduled to kick off at 1:30 p.m. MST, will be declared a no-contest.

“As difficult as this is, there is no question it is the right decision to make. Our student-athletes’ health and well-being is absolutely paramount and we will not put them at risk,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said in a statement. “Our team has worked extremely hard to get to this point, and we will continue to care for our students-athletes and follow all protocols very thoroughly as we prepare for next week’s game.”

The school’s athletic director, Mark Harlan, echoed those sentiments, while also showing care for the University of Arizona. “This also has a significant impact on the University of Arizona football program and we extend our appreciation for their understanding of our situation,” Harlan said in a statement.

The Pac-12 established a minimum threshold each team must meet to field a team this season. To play in a game, schools must have at least 53 scholarship players available, and that number has to include at least seven offensive linemen, one quarterback and four defensive linemen.

Harlan said he and Whittingham, as well as their medical advisers, discussed the situation extensively Friday morning, when the number of positive cases from test results put the Utes program below the 53-player threshold. At that point, they contacted Pac-12 officials and Arizona’s athletic director, Dave Heeke, to make them aware of the situation.

“We are continuing to take every precaution to safeguard the health and welfare of our student-athletes and staff, in accordance with the Pac-12 COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee’s procedures,” Harlan said. “Those with positive test results and those in contact tracing protocols are in isolation and receiving the appropriate care. 

“We will continue to monitor our testing results and stay in close communication with our university, local public health officials and the Pac-12 Conference.”

It’s the second Pac-12 game to be canceled in the past two days — joining the Cal-Washington game scheduled for Saturday night — after a positive COVID-19 test in the Cal program left the Golden Bears without enough scholarship players available under quarantine protocols.

“The cancellation of this game, following yesterday’s cancellation of the Washington at Cal football game, is of course incredibly disappointing to our student-athletes and our fans. At the same time it is an indication that our health and safety protocols are working in identifying positive cases and contact tracing cases,” the Pac-12 said in a statement. “While all of us want to see our football student-athletes on the field competing, our number one priority must continue to be the health and safety of all those connected to Pac-12 football programs.”

The game cancellations come just days after the Pac-12 announced detailed protocols for rapid response to positive COVID-19 tests within programs.

According to Yahoo’s Nick Bromberg, it also becomes the 10th college football game in the country to be postponed or canceled this week alone because of COVID-19, which is a record.

It is the second for an in-state team this season, as case count led to the postponement (and likely ultimate cancellation of) BYU’s game against Army, which was originally scheduled for Sept. 19 and has not been rescheduled.

What the cancellations mean for the four teams that now won’t play this weekend isn’t clear, as the Pac-12 left virtually no wiggle room for such scenarios when it created a six-week schedule for teams to play six games.

One minor caveat to that is that about 30 minutes before Friday’s announcement, Pac-12 reporter Jon Wilner tweeted that the single cross-division game on each team’s schedule (they were all scheduled to play the five schools in their division, plus one from the other division) could end up being changed for division contests that get canceled or postponed.

“We have made the determination to preserve as much flexibility for these games as possible given the potential for COVID-19 disruptions that could lead to the need to reschedule important matchups,” a statement from the conference that Wilner tweeted read. “We plan to review games for this week later in the season and will make an announcement at that time on our approach.”

The Utes are now scheduled to play UCLA next week, followed by USC, Arizona State, Oregon State (the cross-division game) and Colorado.

“I would assume game at UCLA next week is in serious jeopardy,” Wilner tweeted about the Utes’ next scheduled game, next Friday against the Bruins at the Rose Bowl.

The Pac-12 Championship Game is scheduled for Dec. 18.