With Minnesota game canceled, Northwestern shifts gears
Northwestern has managed to stay away from COVID-19 positives this season, but it can't control what happens with other Big Ten teams.
Shortly before meeting reporters on his weekly Zoom call Monday, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald found out Saturday's game at Minnesota has been canceled. It wasn't a surprise, though, since the Gophers didn't play Wisconsin last week either, due to a coronavirus outbreak.
"My focus and our staff's focus, up until a couple of minutes before I got on with you has been all about Minnesota," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to obviously change gears."
Northwestern suffered its first loss of the season at Michigan State 29-20 on Saturday. It was a game the Wildcats fell behind 17-0, came back to take the lead early in the fourth quarter, then had two late turnovers that led to the tying and go-ahead field goals.
The cancellation against Minnesota might have clinched the Big Ten West title for Northwestern, but no one really knows for sure. Even if the Wildcats (5-1) were to lose next week against Illinois, they still own the head-to-head tiebreaker against Iowa (4-2), while Wisconsin (2-1) hasn't played enough games to be eligible to play in the title game.
Before the season, the Big Ten released a set of rules that said teams would have to play a minimum of six games to be eligible to play in the Big Ten championship -- unless the average number of games played by all teams drops to six or less.
That became a concern in the East division because undefeated Ohio State canceled the game at Illinois on Saturday, its second lost contest of the fall. Every team in the Big Ten that has experienced a COVID outbreak (Wisconsin, Maryland, Minnesota) has skipped two games. If OSU follows that lead and cancels at Michigan State this week, the Buckeyes will be down to five games played and ineligible for the conference championship, according to the original rules.
As it stands today, Northwestern would be playing Ohio State for the Big Ten title. But maybe the opponent will be second-place Indiana.
"I wish I had time to think about it," Fitzgerald said. "I'll leave that to Commissioner (Kevin) Warren and his staff. I remember back before the season started, I shared an email of the policies and procedures. It's 2020, I guess we change things whenever we want. Maybe they'll change it, maybe they won't. I don't care.
"We've just got to control what we can control and that's getting healthy this week, getting better fundamentally and then taking a weekend to watch everybody else (mix) it up."
Fitzgerald said there hasn't been a single positive COVID test in the Northwestern football program since training camp began in the summer. Wide receiver Riley Lees, a Libertyville native, talked about what the players have endured this fall.
"We've just had the mindset of go to football, go home," Lees said. "We talked about all offseason that the most important thing to this season is going to be to healthy and to avoid social interaction. In terms of holding people accountable, I think it's more of a trust factor. We're not texting people like, 'What are you doing right now?' It's more of we believe everyone's on the same page and we all have the same goal in mind. It's a lot of trust here."
A weekend with no game brings another set of concerns, since players will have more free time. Like most campuses across the country, Northwestern is basically empty since schools told students to stay home after Thanksgiving break.
"It sounds to me, talking to my colleagues around the country, most if not all of the issues they've had with COVID positives have happened in social decisions with weekend nights off," Fitzgerald said. "If I were them, I would have been playing Sega ... I'd be eating a lot of food and enjoying watching a lot of football this week.
"Our guys have finals too. So they've got to knock their finals out, dominate there, go 1-0 in finals this week and then we'll get ready for our rival next week."