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McFarling: Fuente's Hokies running on fumes

McFarling: Fuente's Hokies running on fumes

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PITTSBURGH – Virginia Tech’s coaches can be thankful for the mask mandate.

They wouldn’t want anybody to recognize them during this one, and certainly not after it.

They brought a team in here that, by kickoff, was favored by nearly a touchdown. And that team got knocked around and ultimately embarrassed by Pittsburgh, 47-14, in a game with few positives for the visitors.

“That,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said, “was a tough one.”

Oh, yeah.

As for positive COVID-19 cases, that was no excuse for this one. If either team had license to blame the maladies of 2020, it would have been Pitt.

The Panthers had to postpone last week’s scheduled trip to Georgia Tech because of coronavirus issues, barely practiced this week, then announced a couple of hours before kickoff that they would be without 16 players, including three starting offensive linemen.

Didn’t matter. A Pitt offense that could be generously described as “average” this season — 71st nationally in scoring, 92nd in yards per game coming into Saturday — moved the ball with ease against the Hokies.

The Panthers engineered six scoring drives of 65 yards or more. The knockout blow was a four-play, 99-yard sprint down the field midway through the third quarter that increased the lead to 33-14.

All the gains that were made defensively against Miami last week vanished in a display of sloppy tackling and porous pass coverage. Tech’s defensive backs couldn’t stay with Pitt’s receivers, and then they couldn’t bring them down. Huge holes began to open for Pitt’s running backs in the second half, as Tech’s early red-zone resistance dissipated.

They got worse as the game went on, and that’s what’s happening to this season, too. The Hokies have dropped three in a row and four of five. They were favored in each of the losses. That’s the very definition of underachieving.

Offensively, Tech regained the full services of two of their most important playmakers: running back Khalil Herbert, who was eased back last week from a hamstring injury, and tight end James Mitchell, who missed last week’s loss to Miami with an undisclosed ailment.

Didn’t matter. The Hokies were held to their fewest points of the season. That frustration was encapsulated by their four fruitless attempts to score from the Pitt 1-yard line in the third quarter.

“We’ve got to get that in,” Herbert said.

This is a fine stadium in a venerable American city on the banks of the Ohio River. But for the Hokies, Heinz Field is endless purgatory. Some of their most humbling defeats in recent years have come here, where they’ve now won only once in seven tries.

Pitt is a bad matchup for Tech regardless of venue. In the past 13 meetings both home and away, the Hokies have covered the Vegas spread just twice. In other words, whatever you’re expecting from Tech against Pitt, you’re getting less than that, even when the Hokies prevail.

In 2020, fairness demands context. This is a tough year for everybody. Holding it together isn’t easy, whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or a small-business owner or a sophomore wide receiver on a college football team.

But this is a new challenge for Fuente and his staff. All the other losses this season were much closer than this one. Turning points were easy to spot, deficiencies simple to pinpoint, paths to victory quicker to summon.

This was a blowout. A bad one.

“We’re heading into a bye week with a group of players that I think it’s fair to say are a little tired,” Fuente said. “They’ve been dealing with this since July. Plus, when they’re at home, no real offseason, all that kind of stuff.

“I guess my point is, the focus for us right now is we’ve got to get healthy. There’s three or four guys off the top of my head that didn’t practice all week that went out there and laid it on the line. So we’ve got to get healthy and get our arms wrapped back around everything that’s happening.”

There’s a lot to try to grasp. And right now, it’s all better done from behind the mask.

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