Two positive tests knock out 14 Illini players before loss to Purdue

  • Illinois running back Mike Epstein (26) carries the ball as Purdue cornerback Cam Allen defends during the first half. Illinois has been testing its football players every day for COVID-19. But after two positives tests this week, after a road trip to Wisconsin, the Illini was forced to play without 14 players on Saturday against Purdue.

    Illinois running back Mike Epstein (26) carries the ball as Purdue cornerback Cam Allen defends during the first half. Illinois has been testing its football players every day for COVID-19. But after two positives tests this week, after a road trip to Wisconsin, the Illini was forced to play without 14 players on Saturday against Purdue. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 10/31/2020 6:26 PM

This week, we learned it is possible for a football team to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Illinois found out Thursday that two players tested positive for COVID-19 -- starting quarterback Brandon Peters and redshirt freshman tight end Griffin Moore.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But due to contact tracing protocols, the Illini were forced to play Saturday's game against Purdue without 12 other players who were found to have had close contact with their two teammates.

All things considered, Illinois performed reasonably well, but lost to Purdue 31-24 with four-string QB Coran Taylor behind center for most of the day.

Head coach Love Smith emphasized after the game that the team had only just the positive tests, the rest of the missing players were out due to contact tracing.

Of course, the Illini opened the season last Friday at Wisconsin. Shortly after that game was played, the Badgers announced several positive tests and canceled Saturday's scheduled game against Nebraska. An update from Wisconsin on Saturday said there were now 12 athletes and 10 staff members who tested positive. Wisconsin is also a state where coronavirus cases have been on the rise.

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"It's hard to tell where it came from," Smith said in his postgame Zoom call. "Did we go to Wisconsin? Yes. Did we spend the night in Wisconsin? Yes we did. We were on a bus. We're not in a bubble, so we live in the world and things can happen.

"I just want to say, team-wise we don't have a big problem within our team, with actual guys that have tested positive."

An obvious question is why did Wisconsin cancels its game, while Illinois had to play without 14 players? Per Big Ten rules, canceled games will not be made up and will go into the books as no contest. So Wisconsin is still 1-0 while Illinois is now 0-2.

Per the Big Ten guidelines, competition is canceled if the positive testing rate among players exceeds 5 percent; or the rate among players and staff grows beyond 7.5 percent.

Smith was asked if there was any talk of canceling Saturday's game at Memorial Stadium.

"No, not really," he said. "There will be discussions about that if we just don't feel like we have guys to play. Enough players, No. 1; and it's really more enough at a position to be able to play. We were down at some of positions, some offensive linemen, but we had enough guys to step up.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"The quarterback position, even though Coran is listed as the fourth-team quarterback -- we had somebody. So I assume that's what you're supposed to do. If you can play at all, you want to keep things rolling and we were able to do that today."

This isn't over, though. The Big Ten guidelines say the earliest a player can return after a positive COVID-19 test is 21 days. And guidelines released in early August said anyone in close contact with a person who tested positive must quarantine for 14 days with no chance of testing out of it.

So it sounds like all 14 players won't be available next week when the Illini is scheduled to host Minnesota. And the list could grow in the coming days.

Backup QB Isaiah Williams was on the contact tracing list, as was four-year starting center Doug Kramer from Hinsdale Central. So left guard Kendrick Green moved to center, Glenbard West grad Alex Pihlstrom stepped into Green's spot and third-string QB Matt Robinson started the game.

After the first series, Robinson left with an injury and Taylor -- a record-breaking runner in high school at Peoria Central -- played the rest of the game, without getting many reps in practice all week.

Taylor rose to the occasion reasonably well, completing 17 of 29 passes for 273 yards, with 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions and 2 lost fumbles. Taylor drove the Illini to the Purdue 15-yard line in the final minute before giving up the ball on downs.

Boilermakers QB Aiden O'Connell, from Stevenson High School, completed 29 of 35 passes for 371 yards and 2 touchdowns. Purdue receiver Rondale Moore did not play due to an unspecified injury.

Other Big Ten teams played with their full roster on Saturday. But Illinois will be caught up in a strange situation for at least two more weeks. Fortunately, there have been no reports of any Big Ten athletes or coaches becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 since the football season resumed.

"Until they say so, we're getting ready for Minnesota and we're still chugging along, right?" Illini linebacker Jake Hansen said. "I think we're as safe as we can possibly be. I want to make that known across the nation and across the Big Ten. No one's getting tested like we are.

"No one has the access to immediate health care right away and the best athletic training staff like we do. So I think we're safer playing football than not playing football, in my opinion."

Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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