Positive COVID-19 tests “in our football program” led Air Force to pull out of a trip this weekend as the academy now looks toward rescheduling that game and figuring out what new precautions will mean for next week.
Athletic director Nathan Pine spoke on the subject for the first time Friday morning with 740 KVOR’s Jim Arthur, who is Air Force’s radio play-by-play announcer for football and men’s basketball. Pine acknowledged that active cases within the team – and not just contact tracing protocols – led to the decision.
“As our numbers increased, we’ve been in communication with Army and hit a point yesterday where we had to cancel the trip out there, postpone the game, and we’ll revisit to see if we can get it on the schedule later in the season,” Pine said as Air Force’s contest became one of several across college football this weekend to be postponed or canceled.
“It’s a battle that everybody’s fighting.”
The Falcons have temporarily halted all athletic practices, leading to uncertainty over the Nov. 14 game at Wyoming.
“I don’t want to speculate about next week just yet,” Pine said. “We have some more testing to do on Sunday that will inform us about where we are in our program. It’s certainly a possibility, but we will wait until early next week to address that and see exactly where we are at.
“We have to get ahead of this as a campus. This is not a football-specific challenge or any of our other sports programs. This is a USAFA challenge that we’re committed to getting beat.”
To reschedule the game against Army, Pine said he planned to speak with West Point athletic director Mike Buddie on Friday and discuss the issue from multiple angles. The likely scenarios would be Dec. 19, as Air Force seems unlikely after a 0-2 conference start to qualify for the Mountain West championship game scheduled for that day and Army has a gap between its game against Navy on Dec. 12 and the Independence Bowl (for which it has already accepted an invitation) on Dec. 26.
Air Force has games scheduled each week through its regular-season finale scheduled for Dec. 3 at Utah State.
Pine left open the possibility of playing Dec. 19, a point later than Dec. 26 and even alluded to other “creative” solutions that might require conference or NCAA approval.
“We want to see this game played, they want to see this game played and our fans want to see this game played, so we’re going to everything we can to try to get it back on the schedule,” Pine said.
Buddie made similar comments on a radio show Thursday night, noting that Air Force had forged ahead to play Army and Navy even when the Mountain West had postponed the season. The Falcons opened the season with a 40-7 victory over Navy on Oct. 3, putting it in position to claim the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy with a win over Army.
“Hopefully we find a way to get it done, but of course we are not going to do it in a way that puts our athletes at risk or jeopardizes the Army-Navy game, which is the crown jewel to us in a lot of ways,” Buddie said. “We are going to make sure we protect that game as well.”
Also on a radio show Thursday evening, Army coach Jeff Monken said that the Falcons pulled out of Saturday’s game because they “felt like that didn’t have enough guys, be it from COVID or, probably, injury, and it made it a little more convenient to say, ‘No, we’ don’t want to do it this weekend.’”
Pine said he was aware of Monken’s comments, but said he understands emotions are high everywhere.
“I’m not going to read too much into it,” he said. “We made the right decision. We were very transparent about it and we’ll move forward. Hopefully we’ll get the game back on and it can be decided on the field.”
Air Force is, in fact, shorthanded. About 40 players left the academy on turnbacks early in the semester after the Mountain West announced plans to try to play a spring season. By leaving under the provision designed for cadets facing hardships but offered to all cadets because of the coronavirus, those players would have been able to return in the spring to play and then gained a season of eligibility by extending their time at Air Force for an extra fall semester. When the Mountain West reversed course more than a month later, it was too late for those players to return. The Falcons also lost quarterback Donald Hammond III to a drop in cadet status.
Now, injuries have taken a toll. Tailback Kaden Remsberg is out with an upper body injury, opening game staring linebackers Noah Bush and Will Trawick are out and on Wednesday a source told The Gazette that freshman linebacker Alec Mock, who ranks fourth on the team in tackles, was lost to an injury in practice. On top of that, at least seven players would have been forced to miss the Army game because of COVID-19 contact tracing protocol. A source told The Gazette one starting player tested positive for the virus, but because Air Force has said it will not discuss COVID-19 testing, The Gazette has decided to not reveal the player’s identity unless confirmed.