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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Mertz out 21 days with confirmed COVID-19 case

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz received a second positive test for COVID-19 Tuesday and will be held out of game activity for 21 days, as first reported by CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd.

According to Dodd, backup quarterback Chase Wolf is still waiting for confirmation on his initial positive test. Mertz’s true positive test makes the odds of a false positive for Wolf significantly less likely, given their close proximity in practice and training.

Mertz’s required isolation from the team comes on the heels of his standout starting debut, in which he torched Illinois for 248 passing yards and five touchdowns in a 45-7 win. The redshirt freshman took home Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week and Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors from the performance.

In order to return to the team, Mertz will have to be cleared by a team-designated cardiologist while also reporting multiple negative tests for COVID-19. 

As of Monday morning, Head Coach Paul Chryst still expected No. 9 Wisconsin to take the field Saturday at Nebraska. 

“I feel confident in everything that’s happened right now,” Chryst said via his weekly Zoom. “There are things in place, really every conference has it, and I feel confident going forward this week.”

Whether Chryst knew of Mertz’ absence at the time of the quote is unknown. Wisconsin is not required to disclose any COVID-19 absences or confirmations — the medical information of players and staff is protected under HIPAA.

That makes figuring out who is (or isn’t) eligible for a given game very difficult, though a player of Mertz’s national stature was big enough news for reporters to latch onto. Via the 21-day absence under Big Ten protocols, Mertz will be held out of two games for certain: at Nebraska and against Purdue.

In order to return to the team, Mertz will have to be cleared by a team-designated cardiologist while also reporting multiple negative tests for COVID-19. Should he meet those requirements, he will be eligible to play at No. 13 Michigan on Nov. 14.

Chryst acknowledged the strict Big Ten protocol Monday morning — most conferences around the nation only require a ten-day absence — but stressed his support of the regulations.

“Admittedly, they told us it was more conservative,” Chryst said. “If that helps one person then that’s a good thing for us … I completely support it. I don’t spend a lot of time and energy trying to overthink what’s been done. I trust the doctors.”

While the severity of the team’s COVID-19 situation is in flux, speculation over the threat of a team outbreak is appropriate. Under the Big Ten protocols previously mentioned, a team must stop competition for 10 days if they meet two conditions:

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  1. Greater than 5% test positivity rate (number of positive tests divided by number of tests administered)
  2. Greater than 7.5% population positivity rate (number of positive individuals divided by total population at risk)

It’s important to note that if just one of these conditions are met, the team has authority to continue competing and practicing under their own “caution and enhanced COVID-19 prevention.”

The Big Ten did not leave time on their football restart for bye weeks, meaning an unplayable Wisconsin-Nebraska matchup would be cancelled without a makeup date. The Big Ten will crown division champions based on winning percentage instead of total wins, so it’s technically not a loss-in-aggregate for Wisconsin’s chances of making the Big Ten Championship Game. 

Now, it’s a two-part waiting game for fans and media alike before Saturday morning: 1) will the game be cancelled due to a team wide outbreak? And if not, 2) who will be on the sidelines Saturday to fill in the missing spots?

Quarterback Danny Vanden Boom would be the next man up if Wolf gets a second positive back in the coming hours. Vanden Boom, a Wisconsin native, never lost a game as a starter in high school, but has attempted just one pass in his two-plus seasons with UW. 

How Vanden Boom’s skills translate to Big Ten competition is relatively unknown at this point, but it’s not a good sign that every quarterback has passed him by on the depth chart during his time in Madison.  

Chryst will speak to the media again Thursday, which should shed some light on Wisconsin’s plan for playing Saturday — if it makes it that far. 

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