Gophers football at Wisconsin Saturday canceled due to COVID-19

Benjamin St-Juste #25 and Mariano Sori-Marin #55 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers tackle Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers during the second quarter of the game at TCF Bank Stadium on November 30, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ((Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images))

The University of Minnesota football team won’t get the chance to bring Paul Bunyan’s Axe back to the Twin Cities this weekend.

The Gophers’ game against Wisconsin, set for 1 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, has been canceled due to COVID-19 issues within Minnesota's program. Team officials said Tuesday that nine players and six staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last five days. The team is also awaiting confirmed results of other presumed positive tests.

As a result, the Gophers have paused all team activities. That decision was made by Gophers Athletic Director Mark Coyle, President Joan Gabel and Gophers' Medical Director Brad Nelson after talking with Big Ten officials.

It'll be the first time since 1906, 114 years, that the rivalry game will not be played.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff has always been our main priority,” Coyle said in a statement. “We have experienced an increase in positive cases recently and have made the responsible decision to pause team activities. We will continue to rely on the guidance of our medical experts as we navigate the next several days. We are doing everything we possibly can to miss the fewest amount of days possible. Our goal is to be healthy enough and ready to compete on December 5 against Northwestern."

Between COVID-19 cases and injuries, the Gophers were without 22 players for last Saturday’s 34-31 win over Purdue at TCF Bank Stadium. They had 61 scholarship players available for the game.

P.J. Fleck didn’t have any updates when speaking with reporters on Monday, saying the team was undergoing its daily COVID-19 testing at the time. The Gophers did not practice Tuesday, and held virtual team meetings.

In addition to the Big Ten’s established daily antigen testing, Minnesota will also implement PCR testing two times each week for members of the football program as it works to return to the field.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes will always come first,” Fleck said in a statement. “Like almost every program in the country, we have been affected on some level by COVID-19 every week this season, but these last few days have resulted in more cases than we have previously seen.

“I am disappointed for our student-athletes and our fans that we will not be able to compete on Saturday, but we need to focus on the health of our student-athletes and staff, which means stopping the spread of the virus. I support the decision made by our administration and medical professionals in consultation with the Big Ten Conference, and I want to thank our athletic trainers and team doctors for everything they are doing to support our program. We will return when it is determined safe to do so by medical experts.”

It’s the first game Minnesota has had to cancel this year due to postiive COVID-19 tests.

The cancelation also complicates matters for Wisconsin in contending for the Big Ten West title. The Badgers had to cancel two games earlier this year due to COVID-19, and teams must play at least six games to be eligible to compete for the Big Ten title. Saturday’s game being canceled would mean they play no more than five regular season games. The Badgers lost at Northwestern on Saturday.

The rivalry game will not be rescheduled. The Gophers' next scheduled game is Dec. 5 against Northwestern at TCF Bank Stadium.