Michigan football cancels final game vs. Iowa due to lingering COVID-19 issues

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan was forced to cancel its third straight football game because more than 50 football players would not have been available to play at Iowa, according to athletic director Warde Manuel.

Manuel, in announcing the COVID-19-related cancellation of the game Saturday night, said the Wolverines would have been without a “significant number of players” for the final game of the abbreviated Big Ten season during “champions week.” Michigan canceled its final three games, including Maryland and Ohio State.

Manuel indicated in his statement Tuesday that the COVID issues on top of “normal attrition due to injury” stretched the Wolverines thin at several position groups. He said there were more players out this week compared to the two prior weeks. Michigan, which last played Nov. 28 in a loss to Penn State, finishes the season 2-4.

Michigan has canceled its game with Iowa.

“The number of positive tests over the past three weeks, which require a 21-day unavailability period, and the contact tracing requirements associated with those numbers has pushed our current list of unavailable student-athletes to over 50,” Manuel said in a statement.

“I am very proud of the way that our players worked to try and get back onto the field but the numbers simply don’t support us taking the field on Saturday. This has been a very challenging and difficult 2020 for everyone and we want to make sure we are doing what is right for our student-athletes at every step along the way, and that ultimately is ensuring their health, safety and welfare.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Indiana and Purdue mutually agreed to cancel their "champions week" game scheduled for Friday because of COVID issues. The teams canceled the matchup a week earlier for the same reason.

A week ago, Michigan canceled its annual rivalry game with Ohio State, and that followed a cancellation of the final home game of the season against Maryland. It is unclear whether there’s a bowl-game option for Michigan, but that seems unlikely.

Ohio State plays Northwestern for the Big Ten championship on Saturday, but the Big Ten added this ninth game — dubbed champions week — as a bonus crossover game for the remaining teams. It did not play out as expected, though. Michigan, the bottom team in the Big Ten East, was scheduled to play at No. 18 Iowa, the second best team in the West behind Northwestern, on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Hawkeyes, who have won six straight, are arguably the hottest team in the conference.

More: Jim Harbaugh reiterates desire to remain Michigan's head football coach

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday the team practiced Sunday and expected to practice this week except on Tuesday, an off day because of final exams.

And so ends Michigan’s part in strange football season that wasn’t going to happen, then happened. Michigan and most football teams across the country did not participate in spring practice because on-campus activities were halted in mid-March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Big Ten postponed a 10-game conference-only schedule in August shortly after releasing the schedule and after teams had begun preseason camp. Several Michigan parents organized a #WeWanttoPlay protest outside of Michigan Stadium on Sept. 5, which would have been the Wolverines’ season opener, and Harbaugh joined the group during the march. A few weeks later, the Big Ten, bolstered by the availability of daily rapid testing, released a nine-game schedule that began Oct. 24.

To make this season happen for players across the country, it became about daily testing and following protocols. In the end, two-time Michigan captain Carlo Kemp, a senior defensive tackle who was among players who protested in September, said he has no regrets.

“It was worth everything,” Kemp said Monday during a news conference. “It was worth every bit of training since March, figuring out what those next couple months over quarantine was going to look like coming back. Just being so excited just to finally be back. We’ve never had an experience like this. Never had a break for three or four continuous months before and then you come back in June and you get to be back with everybody you haven’t seen, which felt like an eternity.

“Get back to work, even though it looked a little bit different. Start lifting again, start working out. Start practicing, have (the season) get canceled, figure out what we’re going to do then. Start protesting because we want to play. Get the season back.”

Kemp knows the evaluation of this season won’t be kind because of the Wolverines’ 2-4 record, but he said the experience has been layered for all the players.

“There’s a whole lot that’s gone into this journey,” he said. “The season, of course, will be defined by how many wins and losses that you have, that’s just the nature of football and the nature of the game that we play. But there’s so much other growth and so many other accomplishments that we’ve accomplished as a team. So much adversity we’ve had to fight through. There were plenty of opportunities to give up, give in and see where this season goes. Every week we’ve come into this building just wanting to get better and doing everything in our power to win on Saturdays.

“Being able to protest was a cool opportunity and being able to play and go through these ups and these downs with all your teammates is definitely a lot better than not playing. There have been a whole lot of other accomplishments that we’ve got to experience, and these are the memories you play for that you would not have been able to have with no season. This is what you take with you when the season’s over.”

Linebacker Josh Ross said he does not second-guess playing this season. The players and coaches knew what they were getting into, he said, and they knew what COVID issues could do to their plans.

“Despite the season not going the way we particularly planned, that don’t mean I regret playing the season,” Ross said Tuesday before Michigan announced the cancellation.

Michigan had a few opt-outs before the season. Right tackle Jalen Mayfield returned but was injured early and didn’t play out the season. Receiver Nico Collins and cornerback Ambry Thomas decided to prepare for the NFL. The players said they wanted to play this season, and offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said Tuesday they were willing to go through any protocols to do so.

“We’re fortunate everyone on this team was so good up until two weeks ago when Thanksgiving hit, which was just a tough scenario for all,” Stueber said. “This season we’ve been very good with COVID protocols. …Everyone was fully on board with supporting all the COVID protocols in order to play the sport they love.”

Stueber acknowledged that all of this did make it difficult mentally. He said “a lot” of teammates were feeling some mental stress and having the last two weeks off for those not in quarantine was helpful.

“You don’t understand unless you go through it, going from your house to the facility and back for a couple months on end. It gets pretty relentless,” Stueber said. “Being worried to leave your house in case of coming in contact with anyone is also not the best feeling, but it was a weird year overall.”

Like his teammates, Stueber has no regrets about getting on the field this season.

“I couldn’t imagine not playing this fall,” he said.


Twitter: @chengelis