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Hokies doomed by inept 'O,' penalties in loss to WVU

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BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech relinquished the Black Diamond Trophy indefinitely on Thursday night, and the Hokies have plenty of regrets about how it happened.

In the last scheduled meeting between the Hokies and West Virginia, Tech struggled to move the ball and committed costly penalties at crucial moments to lose a 33-10 decision at Lane Stadium.

With a sellout crowd and an ESPN audience looking on, the Hokies (2-2) capped a .500 September in much the same way as they started it against Old Dominion — constantly on the retreat because of their own mistakes and offensive ineffectiveness.

West Virginia Virginia Tech football (copy)

Virginia Tech's Chamarri Conner (25) dives for West Virginia running back Tony Mathis Jr. (24) in the first half of the West Virginia-Virginia Tech NCAA college football game in Blacksburg Va. Thursday September 22 2022. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

Tech was flagged 15 times for 132 yards and didn’t surpass 200 yards of total offense until the fourth quarter.

“Obviously disappointed,” Tech coach Brent Pry said. “Either we weren’t making them earn it or we were shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit. So we’ve got to own it, and we’ve got to be better in a bunch of areas.”

Jacolby Spells extinguished the last of the Hokies’ hopes with 9:36 remaining, picking off a Grant Wells pass and returning it 27 yards for a touchdown to create the final margin.

It was the first turnover since the opener for Wells, who threw four interceptions in the 20-17 loss to ODU.

Similarly, the Hokies had cleaned up their act considerably with penalties after committing 15 for 106 yards in Pry’s debut. They were flagged only five times apiece in home wins over Boston College and Wofford before the bug returned in a big way Thursday.

“I think we press, and we kind of get out of sorts,” Pry said. “And we feel like we’ve got to do things above and beyond. We’ve got to stay in the framework and play with fundamentals and techniques and be mindful of what we’re doing.

“Sometimes I look out there and it’s like a panic, and we’re not playing together and we’re not playing as one. And we’ve got to coach them through that. We’ve got to fix that.”

Two huge flags fueled the West Virginia drive that gave the Mountaineers a two-score lead early in the fourth quarter.

Tech looked like it had stopped WVU on an incomplete pass on fourth and 5 late in the third quarter, but linebacker Dax Hollifield was whistled for a roughing-the-passer penalty that extended the possession.

Later, on third and 14 from the VT 28, Tech defensive tackle Norell Pollard got called for illegal hands to the face while working against WVU left tackle Wyatt Milum. That 15-yard penalty negated another incomplete pass and gave the Mountaineers a first down.

"I'm definitely disappointed in the number of penalties,” Pry said. “But I told the guys in the locker room that this is kind of where we're at as a team right now. If you don't fix certain things, you can look at the stats and the number of penalties, but you don't fix certain things just in a couple of weeks.

"It's an overall mindset and manner in which you play, what you're investing in and what you believe in snap after snap. We're still a work in progress in that area.”

Two plays later, Justin Johnson squirted through the middle for a 6-yard rushing touchdown to give WVU a 23-10 advantage.

Rushing was something the Hokies couldn’t do much of. They finished with just 35 ground yards on 18 carries. What’s been missing with that aspect of the team?

“I’m not sure, to be honest,” Pry said. “I’m disappointed, but I’m also surprised. I really thought we’d be able to run the ball a little bit better. We changed up the plan a little bit to spread it out a bit more to run it and had some motions involved, but we’ve got to look at it. We’ve got to be able to run the football.”

West Virginia scored twice in the final minutes of the first half to take a 13-7 lead into the locker room.

A 35-yard field goal cut Tech’s advantage to 7-6 with 1:50 remaining. When the Hokies’ ensuing drive stalled at midfield and resulted in a punt, the Mountaineers needed just 50 seconds to drive 70 yards.

WVU quarterback J.T. Daniels hit Sam James down the seam for a 24-yard touchdown with 11 seconds remaining in the half.

The Mountaineers outgained Tech 237 yards to 140 in the first half, and Tech’s inability to run the ball was glaring. The Hokies gained just 12 yards on 11 rushing attempts before the break, repeatedly putting themselves in unfavorable down-and-distance situations.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Tech offensive lineman Silas Dzansi said. “I do wish we ran the ball a little more, let us get a feel for the run game. But coach [Tyler] Bowen, he has an idea of what he wants to do, and we’re just there to follow it.”

Midway through the second quarter, Tech opted to go for it on fourth and 1 from the WVU 18 while leading 7-3. From the shotgun, Wells tried the middle of the line but was stacked up short of the sticks by Dante Stills and Jordan Jefferson.

“I thought we’d be able to get one yard,” Wells said. “In that situation, we have to do that.”

The Hokies took the lead on the first play of the second quarter, when Wells found Kaleb Smith for a 28-yard strike. Smith, who has been in and out of the lineup all month as he’s battled injuries, made an in-air adjustment to twist his body and snatch the ball in the end zone.

The Hokies now have two extra days of rest before the reenter ACC play with a trip to North Carolina.

“We’ve got to get our bodies right going into hostile territory against a good team who’s holding a grudge against us for last year,” Dzansi said. “We’ve just got to be ready for that, fix the mistakes that we made this past game that we just had and just go from there."

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