'We are very disappointed'; Michigan cancels game against Ohio State

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan has been forced to cancel its long-standing rivalry game with Ohio State because of its concerning COVID-19 outbreak. This marks the first time since 1917 The Game, considered one of the greatest rivalries in college football, will not be played.

The Ohio State game, which had been in jeopardy after Michigan could not play last Saturday against Maryland, was canceled Tuesday by Michigan. The Wolverines had returned to light practice Monday after pausing in-person football activities Nov. 30 giving some hope that The Game would be played Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

Saturday's Michigan-Ohio State game has been canceled.

But a climbing number of COVID-19 positive results forced Michigan’s doctors to pause the program again. One source indicated more than 40 scholarship players are out this week because of COVID-positive results, contact tracing and injuries. The players were getting ready for a light practice Tuesday, another source said, when they were informed the program had to shut down again.

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“The situation we’re in today is that the players, to a man, wanted to play this game,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Tuesday in a video news conference with reporters before later adding, “We are very disappointed. We were all very much — we wanted to play. And we were all very much, the odds are against us but let’s go do this. And as I said before, to a man, our players wanted to have that opportunity." 

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Michigan will continue its daily testing and hopes to return to practice or the Big Ten crossover game during “champions week” Dec. 18-19.

“We don’t have a good enough handle on where this is going to stop,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said Tuesday. “We paused last week because of the increase in numbers on a daily basis, and those numbers kept increasing through this week, through the weekend, into early this week.

“For me, and more importantly for our medical staff, as we started to look at the number and the percentage of our players impacted by COVID and impacted by quarantining it became really apparent to us all that no matter how much we wanted to play the game, that we started this back in March with the goal to put the health and safety of our student-athletes, our coaches, our staff as the first priority and as numbers continue to grow, we can’t ignore and put first how much we want to play this great game against Ohio State. We have to put their health and safety first and until we have a good sense of that and control of that there’s no reason why we should move forward knowing we don’t have a good handle on the COVID cases on our team right now.”

The odds that Michigan would be able to play the game against Ohio State never seemed high based on conversations with people close to the Michigan program since last Friday. Michigan had canceled its normal Monday media availability with Harbaugh and players and pushed it to Tuesday. That, however, was canceled Tuesday morning.

Michigan chief medical officer Darryl Conway said the program was not in the “red-red” or the Big Ten’s threshold for shutting down a program.

“We are not in red-red, but we have had a significant number of uptick of cases in the last week or so,” Conway said during the news conference.

Michigan does not know its opponent in the crossover game or whether the Wolverines will be cleared to play, but Harbaugh said that’s the goal. They haven’t played since Nov. 28 against Penn State.

“Still trying to get that under control and hopefully that will be looking better now and the next few days," Harbaugh said. "Ultimately, we were told the number of people that were out due to COVID was too high, so there’s the real possibility we could play again before this season is over. Our players, as I said before, they want to play. They want to play this week, they want to play next week. They’re going to continue to condition and prepare for that possibility.”

Ohio State had a series of video news conferences Tuesday just before Michigan’s decision was made public. Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard was speaking during a Zoom call when news broke of the cancellation. A reporter asked his thoughts.

“What game’s been canceled?” Hilliard asked, urgently.

He was informed Michigan had just made the announcement. Ohio State ended the news conference a few moments later.

The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, which began in 1897 and after a brief hiatus returned in 1918, and has been played every year since. While the Wolverines lead the series all-time, 58-51-6, Ohio State has dominated the rivalry the last two decades. The Buckeyes have won 15 of the last 16, including eight straight. Michigan's last win over OSU was 40-34 in 2011. 

Both the Maryland and Ohio State games will be considered “no contest” for Michigan in this abbreviated Big Ten-only season.

OSU defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs was asked Tuesday about the possibility of the game being called off.

"I don't want to go there because I got sick to my stomach when you said that," Coombs said. "We're preparing to play. I think we're going to play. This game has been a part of my life since I was 5 years old. We all want to play this game. This game means a lot."