P.J. Fleck on Monday downplayed the significance of missing 22 players in Friday night's game against Purdue, only to have the Gophers shut down mere hours later.
The Gophers athletic department announced Monday night the football team would not practice Tuesday, instead conducting only virtual meetings, because of "presumptive COVID-19 positive tests Monday."
The Gophers said they aim to return to practice Wednesday and still play Saturday at Wisconsin. The department will provide further updates once it has received more test results.
Wisconsin already has missed two games this season because of its own COVID-19 outbreak, and missing a third game would cost the Badgers any chance they had to compete for the Big Ten title.
Fleck said in his video conference Monday that players who test positive from one of the daily antigen tests are presumed positive until follow-up PCR tests can confirm.
The Gophers are waiting for those confirmatory tests, but the athletic department decided to pause while waiting for those results. While not a Big Ten mandated shutter, the Gophers relied on their medical team for this call. It's unclear how the team will continue if all or many of the new positive cases are confirmed.
Fleck emphasized how the 22 total from the Purdue game was a mix of injuries as well as COVID-19 positive cases, adding that only about half — or roughly 11 players — were from COVID issues.
"But that's over a period of time," Fleck said, referencing how players sit out 21 days after testing positive for isolation, cardiac testing and general recovery. "I think everybody heard that number and overreacted, [saying], 'Wow. How could you do that?' "
The Gophers did proceed with the 34-31 victory against Purdue, and Fleck has tried to control any panic that might have arisen, especially in a rivalry week during a global pandemic.
The Big Ten is playing an eight-game regular season over eight weeks. The minimum number of games played to still be eligible for the title is six, unless the average number of games for the whole conference drops below six.
The Badgers are 2-1 after Saturday's loss to Northwestern, while the Gophers are 2-3.
At the time of his news conference, Fleck had no update of more positive tests since Friday, just saying the players were undergoing testing at that same time as part of the Big Ten's protocol, and he didn't want to provide inaccurate numbers. But he hasn't actually provided any numbers, besides vague estimates and insinuations.
Defensive tackle Keonte Schad hasn't played since the Maryland game on Oct. 30, which matches the 21-day policy. But Fleck wasn't concrete about if Schad would return against Wisconsin, just saying he was generally hopeful some players would be able to play again soon.
Early in the season when starting kickers and punters were unavailable, Fleck said after the opener people could "probably imagine" why. While most of those players — including kicker Michael Lantz, punter Mark Crawford and kickoff specialist Dragan Kesich — have returned, last year's kickoff starter Grant Ryerse has not because he had a major hip operation this summer, not because he dealt with COVID-19 this season.
"There's HIPPA laws. My job is to always protect our student-athletes, their names and exposure to something that is incredibly sensitive like this," Fleck said. " … The actual numbers [are] more of a sports administration way of being able to say, 'Here's our numbers as an athletic department.' "
As a whole, the athletic department announces testing updates at the end of every month, though it doesn't specify by team or between athletes and staff. The most recent athletics department update for testing from June through October accounted for 160 positives from 9,846 tests.
But on that timetable, it's hard to judge if the athletic department has experienced a surge like the state of Minnesota has this month. The men's and women's basketball teams did both recently have to pause team activities because of COVID-19, however.
The Gophers test 170 football players and staff every day and would need 60 positive tests of 1,190 total administered in a week, plus 13 positive players and/or staff members, to be unable to play. But anything more than 24 positive tests in the past seven days and six positive players/staff would put the Gophers in the position to re-evaluate the upcoming game, which Wisconsin actually did in canceling its second game of the season against Nebraska with 12 positive players and staff.
Only Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has provided an exact date of when he tested positive, Nov. 1. Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste tested positive ahead of the Iowa game Nov. 13, meaning he and Rossi wouldn't count toward those canceling thresholds.
But offensive line coach Brian Callahan and two other unnamed staff members, plus any unknown players, who tested positive sometime before this past Friday's Purdue game possibly could count toward a cancellation.
Fleck said however many positive cases he's had on his team, none has required hospitalizations, with most showing no symptoms or mild ones.
"I make sure that the environment is healthy, the environment is as safe … as we can playing football, following all CDC and all Minnesota state guidelines, following the guidelines of our medical staff and our medical team, our administration, the Big Ten policies," Fleck said. "And then you go coach. And then you do everything you possibly can to keep things as normal as you can."