Tar Heels among teams stuck by COVID-19 delays

Published 12:01 am Friday, October 2, 2020

By Ralph D. Russo

AP College Football Writer

The last time North Carolina went this long between games during a football season was in 1952, when a polio outbreak on campus forced the Tar Heels to cancel two games.

For No. 25 Memphis, 28 days will separate its season-opener from Saturday’s game at SMU because of a COVID-19 outbreak that shut down its football facility.

One way or another, the coronavirus has caused the postponement or cancellation of 24 games involving major college football teams since Aug. 26. The latest came Thursday, when Appalachian State postponed next week’s game against against Sun Belt rival Louisiana-Lafayette. The Mountaineers’ next game is scheduled for Oct. 14, while the Ragin’ Cajuns are idle until Oct. 17.

The delays and disruptions have created long layoffs, unusual practice schedules and short-handed rosters, leaving coaches wracking their brains for ways to keep players engaged mentally and physically.

“Does it still hold true that you improve the most between your first and second game if there’s two weeks between them, really three weeks between them?” North Carolina coach Mack Brown asked. “I think probably not. We’re starting over.”

No. 12 North Carolina got its opener in on Sept. 12, beating Syracuse. The next week a nonconference game against Charlotte was postponed a couple of days before it was supposed to be played because the 49ers could not play.

North Carolina had an open date the following week, but couldn’t find a game. The Tar Heels will play at Boston College on Saturday, three weeks after the opener without having had an outbreak of their own.

North Carolina could conduct practices as usual, but Brown dialed it back. The staff suggested holding a scrimmage on what would have been game day, but Brown wasn’t keen on that.

“I was concerned that if we had a scrimmage on Saturday and they were distracted and disappointed that they didn’t play that we might get somebody hurt because they’re just not as into it,” he said.

North Carolina did hold a scrimmage last Thursday for players who generally don’t get into games. Quarterback Sam Howell called the plays and players at the top of the depth chart got to root on their teammates.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen this group have that much fun since the bowl game,” Brown said.

Virginia Tech had its opener on Sept. 12 delayed because of COVID-19 problems with North Carolina State, then had its own virus issues force another postponement the next week against Virginia.

Hokies coach Justin Fuente said he needed to cut back on the number and length of practices because the team was depleted between infected players in isolation and those quarantined after contact tracing. Keeping spirts up was challenging.

“It’s hard to do something fun together to take your mind off of it when half the guys can’t even come,” Fuente said. The Hokies finally opened their season last week, pounding N.C. State despite being down 23 players.

Baylor was supposed to start its season on Sept. 12, but Louisiana Tech was forced to pull out four days before. Bears coach Dave Aranda tried to alleviate some of the disappointment by holding a socially distanced, Thursday night NFL watch party for the team using the video board in McLane Stadium.

No. 5 Notre Dame is in the second week of managing an outbreak that postponed one game and left the Fighting Irish unable to make it up during their scheduled open week. Notre Dame head athletic trainer Rob Hunt said a total of 29 players were in isolation or quarantine Thursday and 14 were expected to be released in the next two days.

At Notre Dame, after a player is in strict quarantine for seven days, they can go to a modified quarantine that allows for some physical activity, coach Brian Kelly said.

The last time Notre Dame played was Sept. 19. Kelly said the Fighting Irish planned to have a normal game-week leading into the Oct. 10 home game against Florida State.

“Yeah, there’ll be some challenges, but I think once the game gets going, this group has played a lot of football, I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to get up to snuff pretty quickly,” he said.