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Utah’s game cancellation puts UCLA’s home opener in jeopardy

An aerial view shows Rice-Eccles Stadium, home of the University of Utah football team
Rice-Eccles Stadium, home of the University of Utah football team
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

In Chip Kelly’s hour-to-hour existence, as he likes to call it, the UCLA coach learned before noon Friday that the third version of his team’s schedule might endure its first major disruption.

Utah, which is slated to play Nov. 13 at the Rose Bowl in the Bruins’ home opener, canceled its season opener against Arizona in Salt Lake City on Saturday because it did not have the minimum number of scholarship players available. The Utes were shorthanded as a result of positive tests for COVID-19 and the resulting isolation of other players under contact-tracing protocols.

The Pac-12 approved Utah’s request to cancel the game and declared it a no-contest under conference rules.

One person close to the situation said that UCLA was exploring all options with the Pac-12 in the event that Utah was unable to play the Bruins next week. Arizona State might be an alternative opponent because the Sun Devils’ game against California next weekend also remained in doubt.

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Cal’s opener against Arizona on Saturday was canceled because a Golden Bears defensive lineman tested positive for COVID-19 and the rest of the team’s players at his position have been quarantined for two weeks by order of the City of Berkeley Public Health Department.

UCLA announced Friday evening that one of its football players had tested positive for COVID-19 via antigen and PCR testing, but a person close to the team said the player was someone on defense who was not projected as a starter and that no one else was in quarantine as a result of contact tracing. The player who tested positive must enter isolation for 10 days from the date of the test or until the verification of a false positive.

It was not immediately clear how much the cancellation of Utah’s game endangered its chances of playing the Bruins next week. If the players who were unavailable against Arizona remained unable to play against UCLA, then the game would presumably be called off.

The cancellation of two Pac-12 games before any were played left the conference in need of some damage control.

“The cancellation of this [Utah-Arizona] game, following [Thursday’s] cancellation of the Washington at Cal football game, is of course incredibly disappointing to our student-athletes and our fans,” the Pac-12 said in a statement. “At the same time it is an indication that our health and safety protocols are working in identifying positive cases and contract tracing cases. While all of us want to see our football student-athletes on the field competing, our No. 1 priority must continue to be the health and safety of all those connected to Pac-12 football programs.”

Pac-12 officials hailed daily testing as a safeguard that would clear the way for the twice-delayed football season to resume, but it’s also part of stringent protocols in which as few as one positive test have forced game cancellations. UCLA players must clear one more round of antigen and PCR testing Saturday before being allowed to play Colorado in their season opener.

The conference set a minimum of 53 scholarship players available per team in addition to position minimums that include seven offensive linemen, four interior defensive linemen and one quarterback. To satisfy the positional requirements, each of those players must be on scholarship.

Short-handed teams would be allowed to play if they chose to do so, Pac-12 officials said, but Cal coach Justin Wilcox told reporters Thursday that his team’s ability to play its next game Nov. 14 at Arizona State would not be up to the Golden Bears.

Since Donahue retired in 1995 as the Pac-12’s winningest football coach, the Bruins have had five coaches, none of whom have been able to sustain that standard.

“This is not my decision,” Wilcox said. “It’s not a Cal football, it’s certainly not our players’ decision. It’ll be determined through the public health office at Berkeley and the contact tracing and if those are players who are negative are allowed to come back and join us.”

One person close to the Cal football team told The Times on Friday that the team had taken every conceivable precaution, holding player meetings outdoors with masks on while spaced six feet apart. Wilcox said all of the players in quarantine have continued to test negative for the virus.

It wasn’t enough to save their opener.

The canceled games might be made up later. A Pac-12 official told the San Jose Mercury News on Friday that makeup games could potentially be held Dec. 19, when the conference has built in an open date for a scheduling format that has not been announced.


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