Utah’s football opener with Arizona canceled after positive COVID-19 tests leave Utes' roster depleted

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah's Saturday football opener against Arizona at Rice-Eccles Stadium has been canceled after multiple positive COVID-19 tests among Ute players left them without the Pac-12 minimum 53 scholarship players required to participate.

When the Pac-12 announced on Sept. 3 that it had partnered with Quidel to bring rapid-result, daily antigen testing to its athletic departments, Larry Scott made no bones about what he thought that meant.

The Pac-12 commissioner called it “a game changer,” and he was right. Three weeks prior, his conference abandoned plans to play a fall football season, in large part because medical professionals inside the Pac-12 believed the collective testing capabilities of the 12 schools were not good enough.

With daily antigen testing fueling an abbreviated seven-game Pac-12 season, the University of Utah athletic department pressed forward. The football team has tested for antigens, with 20% of the roster receiving a PCR test each day. It tested, it socially distanced, it wore masks. Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said recently he and his staff have stayed on top of the kids and reminded them “ad nauseam” about what needs to be done.

The Utes' best-laid plans went by the wayside Friday afternoon when the Pac-12, at Utah’s request, canceled its season-opening game vs. Arizona, which had been scheduled for Saturday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The reasoning for the late cancellation stemmed from Utah not having the minimum number of scholarship players available for the game as a result of positive tests inside the program and the resulting isolation of other players due to contact-tracing protocols.

The Pac-12′s game-cancellation policy states that to play a game, a team must have 53 scholarship players available. Within the 53, a team must have one quarterback, four defensive linemen and seven offensive linemen. It is unclear how many Utah players tested positive and how many players are under contact-tracing protocols.

Per Pac-12 guidelines, Utah-Arizona will be declared a no-contest. It is unknown whether or not the Utes will be able to play at UCLA on Friday night, but given the severity of the situation, the game is thought to at least be in jeopardy.

Under the Pac-12′s return-to-play guidelines, there is a lengthy portion dealing with contact tracing and quarantining as a result of positive tests. The portion below zeroes in on what happens if there is an outbreak, which appears to be the case at Utah.

“Infection rates on each team using this approach will be monitored. If there is an outbreak on a team due to athletic-related activity, all team activity will be halted and the team quarantined. Decisions regarding outbreaks and team quarantine will ultimately be up to local public health officials who ideally are working closely and in concert with institutions' medical staff.”

Neither Utah athletic director Mark Harlan nor head coach Kyle Whittingham was made available to reporters Friday afternoon, but both released statements through the athletic department.

“The cancellation of our football game is a very difficult outcome to accept, but it is absolutely the right decision under the circumstances,” Harlan said in part. “While I am heartbroken for our student-athletes and everybody associated with Utah athletics, as well as our great fans, our No. 1 guiding principle is the health and safety of our student-athletes. This also has a significant impact on the University of Arizona football program and we extend our appreciation for their understanding of our situation.”

Added Whittingham: “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. 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 rest of Harlan’s statement offers vague insight into what transpired. According to the statement, the positive test results came back during Friday morning’s round of testing. Between the positives and contact tracing, Utah fell below the 53-player threshold and at that point, discussions between Harlan, Whittingham, and athletic department medical personnel ensued.

A decision to not play was made, at which point the Pac-12 and Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke were brought into the fold. Shortly after Utah’s cancellation announcement, Michael Lev, the Wildcats beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star, reported that the football team had not been scheduled to leave until 2 or 2:30 p.m.

This is the second Pac-12 game to be cancelled this week before the season even starts. On Wednesday, Cal announced that one player had tested positive, while a host of others fell under contact-tracing protocols. By Thursday afternoon, the Golden Bears' season-opening matchup with Washington on Saturday night was cancelled and also declared a no-contest.

“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.”

Friday’s cancellation news coincided with another day of monstrous COVID-19 case numbers across the state of Utah. On Friday, the state’s Department of Health reported single-day records of 2,987 positive cases and 17 deaths. The state’s rolling seven-day average for positive tests through Friday was at 2,033 per day, while the rolling seven-day average for positive tests remains gaudy at 19.7%

With the calendar one week removed from Halloween, the situation in Utah is not expected to get better, but worse. A massive Halloween party near Utah Lake drew roughly 10,000 people according to Provo-based events company The Tribe Utah. The party was shut down by Utah County police.