CHAMPAIGN — Chris Griffin planned to attend Saturday’s Illinois-Ohio State football game.
Since he’s the father of Illinois kicker Caleb Griffin, he would be one of the few hundred family and friends allowed to sit in the Memorial Stadium bleachers on the final Saturday in November and actually watch a college football game in person amid a pandemic.
Except COVID-19 had other plans. Once reports started surfacing on Wednesday afternoon of the Illini’s game with third-ranked Buckeyes potentially in jeopardy, and then Friday night’s cancellation of the game because of multiple positive COVID-19 tests, Chris Griffin realized he likely wouldn’t make the 30-minute trip from his family’s Danville house to Memorial Stadium.
“I had a feeling once the talk started, once word started spreading about it, it was more likely to be canceled than actually happening,” he said. “It’s unfortunate because Illinois is playing well.”
Plans changed quickly this past week once word started coming from Columbus that Ohio State was having issues with COVID-19. Which ultimately resulted in Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff being canceled less than 15 hours before it was scheduled to begin.
“It seems like during the pandemic it’s been you normally know a little bit more in advance, although there’s certainly examples of games even being canceled on gameday,” Illinois sports information director Kent Brown said. “We’ve known all along, once the schedule was in place and you start seeing games around the country get canceled or postponed, that it could easily happen to us as well.”
The Ohio State-Illinois game was the sixth Big Ten game canceled this season because of COVID-19 issues and second one scheduled for Saturday after Minnesota-Wisconsin was called off earlier this week.
It’s the second game the Buckeyes (4-0) have lost for this reason after their game at Maryland on Nov. 14 was canceled and the first for the Illini (2-3), who are set to host Iowa (4-2) next Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told reporters Saturday the game wasn’t required to be called off in accordance with Big Ten COVID-19 regulations, but school officials decided to cancel the game for precautionary reasons.
“We’re seeing, in our particular case, it’s kind of a community type of spread,” Smith said. “So, could we have played? Sure. Was it the right thing to play? No.”
The Big Ten applies two metrics to COVID-19 testing and corresponding practice and game cancellation: test positivity rate and population positivity rate. The former figure is the number of positives in a program divided by the number of tests performed, and the latter statistic is the number of positive-testing individuals in a program divided by the total population at risk.
If a team exceeds 5 percent in the former category and 7.5 percent in the latter, all activities must be stopped for a minimum of seven days.
Smith pointed to rising positivity rates in Franklin County, which includes Columbus, when discussing the decision to not travel to Champaign and play on Saturday. Dr. Jim Borchers, Ohio State’s team physician, told reporters on Saturday that the team surpassed the 7.5 percent population positivity rate but not the 5 percent test positivity rate.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day is the only individual with a publicly-confirmed positive test in the program. School officials did say players, coaches and other staff are affected, but did not name any other individuals.
“This is not something that was going on on Tuesday,” Borchers said. “This was something that happened later in the week.”
Brown said Smith and Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman began talking Wednesday once rumors started circulating about positive cases within Ohio State’s program.
At that point, Brown said, Smith indicated to Whitman that the Buckeyes intended to play as scheduled. Illini officials worked with Fox Sports representatives on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to prepare for the game broadcast, set to be on Fox Sports 1 on Saturday.
“They spent all day (Friday) in setup mode, got their cameras all set,” Brown said. “So even though there’s conversations going on and people are involved in the loop, you still have to keep moving forward like it’s going to happen until there’s the final word.”
The final word wasn’t delivered until around 9:30 p.m. Friday, but plenty of chatter existed earlier in the day.
Namely Day’s positive test being announced and that the Buckeyes’ plane to Champaign wasn’t scheduled to leave Columbus until 8 a.m. Eastern time Saturday so more testing could be conducted.
“At this point it’s not in our hands because we’re waiting on what’s happening at the other school,” Brown said. “We weren’t having the issues that Ohio State was, and so we’re really basically waiting to hear how things are going to work out in Columbus.”
Brown said discussions ensued about shifting the game from an 11 a.m. kickoff to a later start time Saturday. He noted that there would be a “ripple effect” in television scheduling and the Buckeyes’ logistical planning.
Brown also said Ohio State would have undergone another round of testing after its plane touched down at Willard Airport in Savoy on Saturday morning, meaning more positive tests could have been uncovered and potentially forced Ohio State to back out of the game in accordance with Big Ten measures.
“Which may be part of the discussion on why the game was being pushed back — (Ohio State) would’ve had a little more cushion in there to get that (testing) done,” Brown said. “They were willing to roll the dice a little bit that they were able to pull that off. (But) when their test results started returning on Friday night in Columbus, their numbers grew to the point where they weren’t going to be able to play in the game.”
The Illinois communications staff had to act quickly after Ohio State officially canceled the game.
Brown said food service staffers would have started arriving at Memorial Stadium around 5 a.m. on Saturday had the game gone on as planned.
“Their staff was certainly interested in knowing that in advance, before they went to bed, if they were going to have to get up and get to the stadium at 5 a.m. or if they were not,” Brown said. “And that was just one group (working the game).”
Even though this is the Illini’s first time experiencing an actual game cancellation amid the pandemic, the positive COVID-19 tests for quarterback Brandon Peters and tight end Griffin Moore on Oct. 29 after the season-opening loss to Wisconsin on Oct. 23 made clear Illinois would need to prepare for the worst week in and week out.
Illinois, in a sense, was lucky to see some other Big Ten games called off in the weeks leading up to the Ohio State cancellation.
“Each situation’s different, and I think that after Wisconsin and Nebraska had to make a cancellation very early in the season,” Brown said, “I think everybody had to take a look at what they did and see what’s the best way to make sure we’re in touch with each other.”
Now, the Illini players, coaches, staff and family members will wait another week to play again in Memorial Stadium, where they haven’t played since losing 41-14 to Minnesota on Nov. 7.
If they do kick off against Iowa next Saturday in the first-ever December Big Ten game played in Memorial Stadium’s 96-year history — the Illini have only had one other home game in December at Memorial Stadium, losing 53-52 to Fresno State on Dec. 5, 2009 — Chris Griffin hopes to be in attendance.
Supporting his son and the rest of the Illinois football team in the strangest of college football seasons.
“It’s been different to be the delivery guy dropping off delivery food to your son instead of having him come out to eat with you,” Chris Griffin said. “You just want the team to have an opportunity. You just hope they’re able to play next week.”