The quarterback situation for the University of Wisconsin football team remains in flux as it prepares to restart its season this weekend.
The No. 13 Badgers (1-0), returning from a two-week hiatus due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the program, still aren’t sure who will be under center when they travel to Michigan for a 6:30 p.m. game Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
“Kind of the question mark is Graham, he’s in the protocol,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said of redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz.
“We’ve kind of got to see how this week progresses with him. Does he get through it? Does he get to practice? Where would he be at that point. In the meantime, we’ve had good practices and feel good about the guys who are rolling. A little bit of uncertainty there, but the guys that have practiced are, I think, ready to go.”
Mertz is approaching the end of a 21-day absence from games after being one of the 30 Badgers players or staff members to test positive for COVID-19 since Oct. 21. Mertz tested positive on Saturday, Oct. 24, so his 21 days ends on Saturday, which makes him eligible to play Saturday against the Wolverines.
The protocol Rudolph referenced is the Big Ten Conference’s return-to-play steps that players must complete and be passed through by a physician before returning to practice. Those steps begin with biking, before moving to jogging, then weight lifting and cardio. The earliest a player can return to practice is day 19, which for Mertz would be Thursday.
“The big question mark is going to be if we get Graham to the point where he’s practicing and will he have enough in that you feel confident with him. That’s still in the air. I wish I could be more definitive for you guys, but I’m not defined yet in my own mindset, so we’ve just got to keep working through the week and see where we’re at. Listening to our training staff, keep working through it,” Rudolph said.
Michigan (1-2) has allowed opposing quarterbacks more than 300 yards and three touchdowns each of the past two weeks.
In an interview with the Big Ten Network on Wednesday, UW coach Paul Chryst said he was hopeful that Mertz would be available for the game.
Mertz’s backup, redshirt sophomore Chase Wolf, also tested positive for COVID-19 after the Badgers’ season opener against Illinois. He may be available this weekend, but the date on which Wolf tested positive hasn’t been reported and UW doesn’t release that information due to medical privacy laws.
Without Mertz or Wolf available, UW would turn to redshirt junior Danny Vanden Boom.
“What you want to do is to put them in a position that the whole group would be confident in executing, I think that’s key. I think as we close out this week, it’ll be really good for us this evening, tomorrow, to really close down on the calls and try to get it tight enough to where everyone feels really confident and comfortable (that) whoever is taking the reigns has the skillset and the understanding to be able to execute. I think that’s kind of the key,” Rudolph said.
“Graham’s been our 1, (Wolf's) been our 2, Danny’s been our 3. We’ll work through it like that depending on who we’ve got and how healthy we are.”
FAQs regarding the Badgers' COVID-19 outbreak
How many Badgers have contracted COVID-19?
As of Nov. 7, the Badgers football program has 30 active cases of COVID-19 — 17 student-athletes and 13 staff members — since Oct. 21.
The program only identified one of those cases, saying head coach Paul Chryst has contracted the virus. Sources told the State Journal that offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and quarterbacks Graham Mertz (above) and Chase Wolf were among those to test positive.
UW athletic director Barry Alvarez said during a news conference that the program had one positive test in the first few weeks of daily testing. Then one student-athlete tested positive on Wednesday, Oct. 21, followed by 29 more people within the program from Oct. 24-Nov. 7.
Why are the canceled games no contests if the Badgers aren’t at “red/red” levels?
Because UW’s decision was based on its COVID-19 testing numbers, the games are considered no contests and won’t be counted on the team’s records.
Big Ten protocols state that games are considered no contests if they’re canceled due to a program reaching what has been called “red/red” levels. Those levels are defined as a seven-day rolling average of a team’s positivity rate over 5%, and a seven-day rolling average of a team population positivity rate over 7.5%
UW officials have stated that the Badgers are at “orange/red” levels, meaning they have an average team positivity rate between 2-5% and an average team population positivity rate over 7.5%.
Per Big Ten protocols, a program must “proceed with caution and enhance COVID-19 prevention” and “consider viability of continuing with scheduled competition” if it reaches “orange/red” levels. Alvarez said UW decided to pause its team activities and cancel the games to stop the spread of the virus and “get their arms around it.”
Will they schedule make-up games?
When the Big Ten debuted its truncated schedule calling for nine games in nine weeks, the lack of open dates eliminated chances to reschedule games during the regular-season window.
Nebraska requested that the Big Ten change its ruling about allowing non-conference games in an attempt to play a game against Tennessee-Chattanooga. The conference denied the request.
The canceled game against Purdue will also not be rescheduled.
Does Illinois’ team have COVID-19 cases after playing the Badgers?
Illinois announced Saturday morning that quarterback Brandon Peters and tight end Griffin Moore tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday, Oct. 29. Both players will be out of game action for 21 days.
"Contact tracing also sidelined several other players for (Saturday) and next week's game against Minnesota," a release from the program read.
Illinois lost its season opener 45-7 to UW at Camp Randall Stadium.
Will the Badgers play next week?
To be determined
UW is slated to play at Michigan on Nov. 14. If that game will be played is still being decided.
The Badgers’ pause on team activities was lifted on Nov. 6 and limited on-field conditioning work resumed.
Why do the players who have contracted the virus have to sit out 21 days?
The Big Ten requires that players wait at least 14 days from their initial diagnosis to go through a cardiac screening that can clear them to start working back toward competition. The league also built in seven more days for players to build back toward competition after being cleared in the cardiac testing.
The 21-day break from game action is the longest league protocol among the Power Five conferences.
Jim Borchers, the team physician at Ohio State who was co-chair of the Big Ten’s return to competition medical subcommittee, said experts told the conference that cardiac testing and evaluation couldn’t start until two weeks after diagnosis.
However, this 21-day layoff has come under scrutiny this week.
A report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found little evidence of myocarditis in COVID-positive college athletes who had mild or no symptoms. The report didn’t recommend cardiac testing to the level the Big Ten is conducting.
Alvarez (above) told Sports Illustrated that the Big Ten should “reevaluate” the protocol.
Can the Badgers still make the Big Ten championship game?
Yes, but they can’t miss any more games.
The conference changed its divisional tiebreakers for this season, and those modifications will now be necessary considering at least two teams — UW and Nebraska — won’t complete the eight-game regular-season slate.
According to a Big Ten policy put in place this season, “a team must play at least six games to be considered for participation in the championship game. However, if the average number of conference games played by all teams falls below six, then teams must play no less than two fewer conference games than the average number of conference games played by all teams to be considered.”
How are the players doing? Are they symptomatic?
UW is not releasing updates regarding individual players’ illness and has not said whether some or all have experienced symptoms of COVID-19. Michael Moll, the program's Chief Infection Officer for the Big Ten, said no players or staff members have had severe symptoms or required hospitalization.
During a Zoom call with reporters, Chryst said he felt fine physically and he completed his isolation period without symptoms.
In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, players are isolating themselves in their living spaces. UW has secured hotel rooms to separate those who live together.