Through three weeks of its chaotic, shortened season, as Pac-12 games were canceled and schedules upended, USC played on tenuously through the pandemic, its campaign unimpeded by the coronavirus.
But that changed with a single positive case Monday, followed by another Tuesday. By Thursday afternoon, at least one more USC player exhibiting symptoms tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing the Pac-12 Conference to step in and declare Saturday’s game against Colorado a no contest.
Statement regarding Saturday’s Colorado at USC #Pac12FB game: pic.twitter.com/Ng4J6SDHjn
— Pac-12 Conference (@pac12)
The Buffaloes instead will host San Diego State on Saturday in Boulder, Colo.
Seven unidentified USC players, including several starters, already were in quarantine before the decision was made Thursday night, because of either positive cases or contact tracing protocols. A third positive case arose after USC was cleared to hold a full, on-field practice Wednesday, leaving even more players affected.
Thursday morning, coach Clay Helton said he felt USC was in “a very good place”. He expressed confidence that the university’s robust safety protocols had kept the outbreak at bay. But the coach acknowledged he was “still fearful.”
“This could’ve been devastating,” Helton said Thursday morning. “Because we haven’t had a ton of positives. This could’ve run through the team extremely fast, and all of a sudden, half your football team is out. But from everything we’re doing, the way we travel, the way we stay in hotels, the way we eat, the way we test, everything, it really limited the scope.”
Helton’s fears were before second helpings of dinner were served Thursday night. A new round of contact tracing connected to the third positive case left USC without the minimum number of players at a specific position group required by the conference.
How many players are now in quarantine — and how long they’ll be required to stay there — was unclear. USC is scheduled to play Washington State on Dec. 4 at the Coliseum.
As cases continue to spike across the country, USC-Colorado is the third Pac-12 game canceled this week. The conference canceled the Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State, as well as a matchup between Arizona State and Utah.
“We are disappointed for our players and fans and those from Colorado that Saturday’s game will not be played,” Helton said in a statement, “but the health and safety of everyone in both programs is of the utmost priority. Our players have worked hard since the summer not only to prepare for this season, but to do so in a safe manner by following all health protocols. I applaud their discipline and sacrifice in doing so.”
Official Statement pic.twitter.com/ER5xgURwf4
— USC Football (@USC_FB)
For months, USC limited its exposure to the virus. It set up strict safety protocols and players did well in following them. Its players led the way in calling for the Pac-12 season to proceed safely, even writing a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom urging him to loosen restrictions and allow them to play.
“We certainly understand that we have to be perfect,” Brandon Sosna, USC’s chief of staff and COVID-19 action chair, told The Times this month. “That’s the expectation we’ve set.”
An off-campus outbreak caused a brief pause in offseason activities in late August. But otherwise, its protocols largely had passed muster. Since the Pac-12 announced its return in September, USC had dealt with just one case of the coronavirus.
Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart has appeared to reach a breaking point with his tolerance of regulations meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
USC was one of just two teams in its division to complete half its schedule without interruption, the Trojans and UCLA Bruins both playing three games in three weeks. Colorado was the only other undefeated team in the Pac-12 South, but without a win over USC, it’ll have a hard time gaining ground with one fewer conference game than the Trojans.
USC has just two games remaining, with an additional appearance in the Pac-12 title game potentially on tap for Dec. 19. It wasn’t going to be enough for the Trojans to rise from 18th in the initial College Football Playoff rankings and join the contenders for the national championship, but the chance at a conference title has kept the Trojans engaged.
“The importance of being able to play these games down the stretch here is going to be really important,” Helton said Thursday morning. “Obviously, there’s some teams out there that have more games than us.”
Now, USC will be without another game on its schedule, its case for contention growing ever more tenuous, with an uncertain final stretch still ahead.
This content was originally published here.