This week has been a devastating one for college football as it attempts to hold its season in the midst of a pandemic. As COVID-19 cases have surged nationwide, the increase has been reflected on college rosters.
Four SEC games have been canceled or postponed this week due to positive tests and contact tracing. No. 3 Ohio State’s game against Maryland won’t be played this weekend due to spread on the Terrapin roster. And California is staring down its second consecutive cancellation to begin the season after contact tracing knocked out an entire position group due to one positive test.
This is the environment No. 20 USC faces as it prepares to go on its first road trip this season, to play Arizona on Saturday in Tuscon. The Trojans have thus far successfully navigated COVID-19 concerns, their only shutdown coming in late August before it was even clear the Pac-12 would play its season in the fall.
But the road presents an entirely new set of variables. Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher hypothesized this week that his team’s shutdown stemmed from air travel and smaller road locker rooms.
Some precautions for USC take care of themselves. The team goes from its 110-person home roster to its 74-player travel roster, in addition to essential coaches and staff members. No administrators or boosters will be on the plane. And each masked passenger will have a seat in between them and the next person.
“You get the biggest plane you can possibly get,” head coach Clay Helton said. “Anywhere we go, you see us with masks on constantly. Our kids have done a great job with discipline and our staff knows how important it is to mask up and keep distance. That’s what you have to do.”
After a noon practice Friday, USC plans to arrive in Arizona later than usual, to try to limit the actual time away from the team’s campus sanctuary. Like prior to home games, each player will get his own individual room, and all meals will be brought to these rooms.
“We don’t do team meals anymore. We haven’t done that since the beginning of this thing,” Helton said. “Meals are eaten in their room, since that’s one of the leading causes of the spread right now, congregating while you’re eating.”
USC will have to adjust its new pregame and halftime routines based on the facilities provided at Arizona Stadium. Prior to the home opener, half the team dressed on-campus at the John McKay Center while the rest used the Coliseum locker room.
At halftime, USC had a tent set up and kept the same separation, with the players who dressed at the John McKay Center staying outside the locker room with messages being relayed to them as best as possible.
“It’ll be a little bit different arena in Arizona and remembering each county is different based on the rules and regulations,” Helton said. “We’re just trying to follow L.A. County’s rules and regulations to the T and making sure that we’re following all health and safety protocols. It’s different.”
Helton ruled out the possibility that defensive tackle Brandon Pili (broken finger) will play against Arizona, and described center Brett Neilon (ankle) as “highly doubtful” to play the Wildcats.
Justin Dedich will take Neilon’s place at center, as he did in the fourth quarter against Arizona State when Neilon sprained his ankle.
“There’s no doubt in our mind that we won’t skip a beat. He just happens to be a year younger than Brett, and they were in a fierce competition that Brett won out,” Helton said. “But he didn’t sulk. He didn’t pout, feel sorry for himself. Just kept on training and improving and preparing for his opportunity, and here it is against Arizona as a starter.”