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Notre Dame football season on hold

The Irish won’t play until Oct. 10 after players were put in isolation and quarantine because of the coronavirus.

Quarterback Ian Book had three first-half touchdown runs last Saturday against South Florida as Notre Dame won its 20th ­consecutive home game.
Quarterback Ian Book had three first-half touchdown runs last Saturday against South Florida as Notre Dame won its 20th ­consecutive home game.
Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

There was some eye rolling on social media when Notre Dame conducted a socially distanced version of its postgame tradition in Weeks 1 and 2.

Instead of locking arms with their teammates and swaying in unison to sing the “Alma Mater” along with the school’s marching band, the Irish spread out at five-yard intervals as though conducting pregame stretch.

Well, no one’s laughing now.

Saturday’s game at Wake Forest, scheduled as the first road test for the nation’s seventh-ranked team, was postponed until Dec. 12 after up to 27% of Notre Dame’s 85-man roster landed either in isolation or quarantine because of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

Notre Dame announced Tuesday that it was pausing all football-related activities until further notice. It speaks to how concerned the university’s leadership is that even a mutual off date of Oct. 3 for the Irish and Demon Deacons was brushed aside as a reasonable reschedule date.

As it stands, Brian Kelly’s 11th edition won’t play again until Oct. 10, a home night game against Florida State. Kelly won’t even appear on his Thursday radio show until Oct. 15; this week’s appearance was recorded before the Wake Forest game was postponed.

“We managed an increase in positivity rates in August, and the players handled it wonderfully,” Kelly said in a statement. “We knew COVID would present challenges throughout the season, and we’ll always put student-athlete health and safety at the forefront of our decision-making.”

That was the case as Notre Dame canceled four of its 25 scheduled fall practices leading up to the Sept. 12 opener against Duke. Just four Irish players had been sidelined through a summer of testing, either by positive -COVID-19 tests or contact tracing.

But those figures began to trend in the wrong direction before last week’s 52-0 win over South Florida. Four players tested positive and were put in isolation; six more were put in quarantine from contact tracing.

When seven more players tested positive Monday, the decision was made to skip the trip to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, until Notre Dame could get its house in order. Just as troubling, even though all 10 Irish players in question were held out of the South Florida game, the Bulls decided to postpone their Sept. 26 road game against Florida Atlantic “out of an abundance of caution.”

This came after South Florida medical officials conducted a video review of their game in South Bend. Even though the seven Notre Dame players who tested positive Monday had tested negative just three days earlier, Dr. Mark Fox of the St. Joseph (Ind.) County Health Department told WSBT-TV it was likely all seven had the virus while facing the Bulls.

And while Dr. Fox said, “There hasn’t been good data to suggest transmission from in-game activities,” he did allow for the “theoretical” possibility.

South Florida coach Jeff Scott said Thursday the team was doing its due diligence.

“It’s not a situation where the coaches go in the film room with the medical staff and say, ‘Hey, that didn’t count. He ran around that guy,’ ” Scott told reporters. “They go do the work. That’s why you pause your workouts.”

Meanwhile, the SEC is set to kick off its season this weekend, while the Big Ten ramps up quickly in advance of an Oct. 24 scheduled rollout. The setback for Notre Dame, where no one sought to downplay that the coronavirus and daily testing had only recently been implemented for linemen, raises questions about the viability of fall football in other markets.

Even before Tuesday’s postponement, Kelly had spoken in cautious terms about the difficulty of taking a college football traveling party on the road. Had the Wake Forest game been scheduled for a night kickoff instead of noon Saturday, Kelly suggested the Irish might have flown in the same day and then headed straight for the airport after showering at the stadium.

“You’re trying to avoid as much contact with outside your quote-unquote bubble as possible,” Kelly said Monday.

What are the chances Notre Dame makes it unscathed through the nine remaining games on its regular-season schedule? What are the odds any major program avoids postponements and cancellations of its own?

Life outside the sports bubble remains precarious, indeed.