ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Citing a rising number of COVID-19 cases in its program, Michigan canceled its annual showdown with Ohio State on Tuesday as college football lurches toward the end of the season without one of its cornerstone rivalry games.
The season-ending grudge match known as “The Game” won’t be played for the first time in 102 years.
“The number of positive tests has continued to trend in an upward direction over the last seven days,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said. “We have not been cleared to participate in practice at this time. Unfortunately, we will not be able to field a team due to COVID-19 positives and the associated quarantining required of close contact individuals. This decision is disappointing for our team and coaches but their health and safety is paramount, and it will always come first in our decision-making.”
The third-ranked Buckeyes played through what coach Ryan Day called a “mini outbreak” last Saturday in a 52-12 win at Michigan State after he was relegated to watching the game from home. Day is among the coaches and players in the program who tested positive for the coronavirus, leading to Ohio State canceling a game at Illinois.
While outbreaks have disrupted more than 100 games across major college football since late August — including this weekend’s regular-season finale between No. 7 Cincinnati and No. 18 Tulsa, who will instead look ahead to their matchup in the Dec. 19 American Athletic Conference title game — the problems with the Wolverines were closely watched in part because the undefeated Buckeyes (5-0) have championship goals again this season.
With two games already canceled, the Buckeyes under current conference rules need a sixth game to be eligible to play for a Big Ten championship Dec. 19 in Indianapolis against Northwestern. Day said the conference should consider allowing Ohio State to play even with only five games.
“I think (the rule) is one of those things that was put into place early on, and decisions are made based on the information you have at the time and things change,” Day said shortly before Michigan’s announcement. “If we don’t quite get the games we need to get into the championship game, I think that needs to be looked at hard, just like anybody else in the conference.”
“The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is one of the most important rivalries in all of sports,” the Big Ten said in a statement. “The conference is committed to transparency and will continue to collaborate with its member institution stakeholders to determine Big Ten championship game participation requirements as well as tiebreakers.”
The league could decide Ohio State will still represent the East Division at least in part because the conference doesn’t want to hurt the Buckeyes’ chances of earning a playoff berth. Ohio State entered the day No. 4 in the CFP rankings.
The Wolverines canceled last weekend’s game against Maryland because they had at least 12 positive COVID-19 cases within the football program, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press. That number had reached 16 by Tuesday, according to the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because the size of the outbreak has not been disclosed by the school.
The cancellation spares Harbaugh and the Wolverines (2-4) what would likely be another lopsided loss.
The Buckeyes beat Michigan 56-27 at the Big House last year, extending their winning streak in the series to a school-record eight straight. Harbaugh fell to 0-5 in the rivalry, continuing a trend that has seen Michigan lose 15 of its last 16 games to Ohio State to knock some luster off one of the greatest rivalries in sports.
Harbaugh’s winless record as a coach in The Game is often scrutinized and is especially true this season with Michgan sputtering to just two wins. Harbaugh has one year left on his contract at the school he led as a quarterback in the mid-1980s.
The Game was first played in 1897 and became an annual contest in 1918. Michigan still leads the series 58-51-6, but the next showdown will have to wait. Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said the idea of not being able to play against Michigan made him “sick to my stomach.”
“This game has been a part of my life since I was 5-years-old,” said the 59-year Coombs, who grew up in suburban Cincinnati.
Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis said the team works all year long with the goal of beating Michigan.
“There’s a lot of hatred that goes toward that (Michigan) logo,” he said. “All the stuff we have to do during the offseason, all the sit-ups and push-ups, everything, so there’s a lot of stuff that is definitely geared toward them.”