The end game this week for the University of Utah football team is to finally open its season Saturday night at UCLA, but any rational inside or outside observer of the program understands that it will be a slog just to get there.
Utes athletic director Mark Harlan took to Twitter Tuesday morning, indicating that daily-antigen testing for the football program had gone well earlier in the day and that they were continuing to plow forward with an eye on Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl.
“We have had more good results in our daily COVID testing with football,” Harlan said. “We continue to push ahead and prepare for our game vs. UCLA this Saturday, with hopes for more negative test results throughout the week. The focus, as always, is to follow the leadership of our medical professionals.”
There was no Monday testing update from Harlan via Twitter, or via statement from the athletic department, but multiple sources told The Salt Lake Tribune that the Utes did resume practice Monday as expected after things were halted over the weekend following a rash of positive tests late last week. Those positive tests, plus the ensuing contact-tracing protocols fueled the cancellation of Utah’s original season opener vs. Arizona on Nov. 7.
Utah now has more testing in front of it before it can play Saturday night. The Utes will carry on with rapid-result, daily-antigen testing Wednesday morning, Thursday morning and again on Friday before the team departs for Los Angeles. Per the Pac-12′s testing protocols, the results of Friday’s testing need to be known before the team will be allowed to depart.
On Saturday, Utah’s entire traveling party will be subject to antigen testing via third-party administrator, SafeSite. The Pac-12 says SafeSite has the capacity to conduct only two rapid-result PCR tests per hour in an effort to confirm any positive antigen tests that may pop up.
Putting what remains in front of Utah this week aside, Harlan’s announcement marked another step forward after a trying weekend.
At Utah’s request on Friday afternoon, the Pac-12 canceled the Arizona game and declared it a no-contest. The reason for the late cancellation stemmed from the fact that between a rash of positive tests and the ensuing contact-tracing protocols, Utah could not meet the Pac-12′s 53-scholarship player threshold necessary to play a game. Within the 53, a team must have one quarterback, four defensive linemen and seven offensive linemen.
UTAH AT UCLA
When • Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MT
TV • FOX 13
How many players tested positive late last week, how many active positive cases Utah football is dealing with, and how many players and staff members remain in isolation under quarantine protocols all remain unclear. Utah officials have declined to reveal those numbers.
“It definitely hurt not being able to go out there and compete,” redshirt junior nickel Malone Mataele told reporters via Zoom on Monday morning. “If you put the work in and keep your head down, you can’t be too mad at that. All you can do is prepare, put in the time, put in the effort. Things are going to happen, it’s just about building and moving on to next week.”
The athletic department on Sunday evening reported consecutive days of zero COVID-19 test results, while the Pac-12 agreed to change the date of the game at UCLA from Friday night to Saturday night, giving the Utes more time to prepare themselves. That said, even if the game does get played, Utah appears likely to face unique challenges.
In addressing reporters on Monday morning, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham painted a dark picture of what the Utes have been dealing with.
Between the positive tests and contact tracing, two position groups were decimated, helping fuel the Arizona cancellation. Furthermore, Whittingham indicated that there are scout-team players taking first-team reps, while there are walk-on players preparing to see live game action Saturday night.
“Every day is different, and if we get a few more positives this week, that could knock us out for the game this weekend,” Whittingham said. “It’s a day-to-day thing, and we are doing our best to be able to play the game, but if we lose many more players, it may be another situation where we’re not able to.”