Wisconsin Announces 12 New COVID-19 Cases, Cancels Game at Nebraska; Illini Coach Lovie Smith: 'our team is clean'

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith claims his team has no new COVID-19 cases after the Illini's Week 1 opponent, Wisconsin, announces an outbreak.
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Despite Illinois being involved secondarily in a contact tracing perspective in the first Big Ten Conference football game postponement, everybody surrounding the Illini football program claims to have no new positive coronavirus cases.

In a Wednesday morning media release, Wisconsin reported 12 new positive COVID-19 cases as a reason for suspending practice and cancelling its game this Saturday against Nebraska. The positive cases reportedly include head coach Paul Chyrst, starting quarterback Graham Mertz and backup quarterback Chase Wolf.

Wisconsin defeated Illinois 45-7 in Madison, Wis., last Friday in the first game of the 2020 Big Ten Conference football season. Illinois football spokesperson Kent Brown and Illinois head football coach Lovie Smith have claimed the Illini roster and coaching staff have not been subjected to new positive cases after being tested daily according to the Big Ten Conference protocols.

“Our team is clean,” Smith said in a post-practice Zoom call. “As you can see, we’re kind of hunkered down in the bunker. We have a protocol in place that we follow daily. We assume everybody else is doing the same thing. I know things can change. I know there’s an outbreak all over the country right now. Right now, for our football team, not much has changed. “Does that mean we're not going to have positive tests that pop up? No, that’s society right now. That’s what’s happening in our country and in the world.”

The University of Illinois has declined to regularly publicly released COVID-19 testing numbers so beyond further announcements, like the one Wednesday morning by Wisconsin, the general public is forced to take the word of Illinois athletics officials and Smith himself. In early August, Illinois announced 18 football players had tested positive during the previous two months since returning to campus.

“Does that mean we’re not going to have positive tests that pop up? No. That’s society right now,” Smith said. “That’s what’s happening in our country and in the world. We’re just making sure at the University of Illinois that our guys follow the proper protocol, which will give us a chance to play football games this year.”

Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst congratulates his team after a touchdown against Illinois on Oct. 23. Wisconsin defeated Illinois 45-7 on that Friday night opener for the Big Ten Conference.

Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst congratulates his team after a touchdown against Illinois on Oct. 23. Wisconsin defeated Illinois 45-7 on that Friday night opener for the Big Ten Conference.

After the new Big Ten Conference football season was announced last September, Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman acknowledged to media that cancellations and positive tests would be a reality of this 2020 campaign.

“As we go into it, we know (in the Big Ten), you’re going to see more cancellations than postponements because we don’t have a lot of wiggle room on the schedule,” Whitman said.

The 2020 home opener at Illinois, versus Purdue at 11 a.m. CST on BTN, is still slated to be played and the Boilermakers are slated to have head coach Jeff Brohm return from COVID-19 quarantine. Brohm missed the 2020 opener last weekend, which they won 24-20 against Iowa, after the Boilermakers coach tested positive for COVID-19 and left the interim head coach duties to his younger brother and Purdue offensive coordinator Brian Brohm.

“When we go and play a team, we assume that both teams are clean,” Smith said. “That’s what you have to assume. We control ours. So that’s how we look at it. There’s a reason we played (a) Big Ten-only schedule. We kind of trust what everybody’s doing. I feel comfortable with that.”