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McFarling: Hokies play stunning game of catch-and-release

McFarling: Hokies play stunning game of catch-and-release

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Virginia Tech West Virginia Football

Virginia Tech wide receiver Tre Turner (center) reacts after the final play of the game against West Virginia on Saturday.

MORGANTOWN, WVa. — All afternoon, Virginia Tech chased this game like a greyhound pursuing a mechanical rabbit.

You ever wonder what would happen if those racing dogs actually caught up to their prey? On Saturday, we found out. The Hokies didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t believe their good fortune, and like they’d done so often earlier in the game, they squandered it.

Catch-and-release.

In another extraordinary chapter of this rivalry that never should have left us, West Virginia held on for a 27-21 win over the Hokies on Saturday at Mountaineer Field.

Shocked expressions graced the faces of Tech players as they walked toward the tunnel. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” blared on the speakers — it always does here, win or lose — but a decent portion of the crowd of 60,022 was no longer around to sing it.

Why bother? This game seemed over at halftime. It HAD to be over with 5:54 remaining, when the Mountaineers stripped Tech quarterback Braxton Burmeister on fourth down, taking possession with a 27-13 lead.

And then it wasn’t.

“Winning,” WVU coach Neal Brown said, “is hard.”

For nonbelievers in that axiom, the Hokies proved it.

Following a remarkable chain of events — a stop, a touchdown, an interception, a fourth-down conversion — they had four shots to win this game from inside the WVU 5-yard line in the final two minutes.

And they couldn’t.

“Our guys are pretty crushed,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said. “We are all crushed.”

Now, two things can be true here. The first is that the Hokies showed remarkable resilience to put themselves in the position they did. Longtime fans of this program know how games like this — on the road, struggling with confidence, trailing by more than two touchdowns — can turn into utter embarrassments.

Shoot, it happened just up the road from here in Pittsburgh less than a year ago. Tech stops tackling, stops blocking, stops seeming to care. And a game that should at least be close becomes one that makes the nation do a double take when the blowout score scrolls along ESPN’s bottom line.

That didn’t happen this time, and that’s encouraging.

“We’re definitely a bunch of fighters,” Tech offensive lineman Brock Hoffman said. “We’ll fight until the clock says 0:00. But we just have to start faster. It wasn’t an easy second half. We had to fight our whole way back, but if we start faster, that first half and the game will go our way.”

That’s the other part that can be true — and is. The Hokies should have given themselves a better opportunity to win this game, even before the final failed series.

They foreshadowed their late-game red zone clunkers by getting zero points in two previous drives inside the WVU 10-yard line. The avalanche of unforced errors just before halftime was a killer.

Trailing by 17 points, Tech got to the 2-yard line before committing a false start penalty on third down. Then Burmeister’s throw to a wide-open Tayvion Robinson in the end zone was too low.

Robinson thought he’d gotten his hands under the ball for a catch. The officials disagreed, and John Parker Romo missed a 24-yard field-goal attempt on the final play of the half.

If you looked up “how not to win on the road” on Wikipedia, that series would be diagrammed, no citations needed.

“It centers around running the ball and making plays down there,” Fuente said of succeeding in the red zone. “We were pretty shoddy. Inconsistent to say the least.”

Actually, they were more consistent in those scenarios Saturday than they would have liked to have been. The plays preceding Burmeister’s fourth-quarter fumble were two runs from inside the 8 that picked up only 3 yards. One was a baffling jet sweep call to the short side of the field that got stuffed for a 1-yard loss.

Despite all this, the Hokies are left in a pretty decent spot. They’re still in a prime Coastal Division perch. This was a nonconference game, and WVU hasn’t lost one of those here in a decade. Tech has a beatable Richmond team coming to Blacksburg before facing Notre Dame at home following an open date.

They’ll need to look at their red zone offensive play-calling and tweak their prep for early-game defense. And they’ll need to do something else, too.

“Stay together,” Tech linebacker Dax Hollifield said. “I’ve seen losses like this tear a team apart, especially sides of the ball. We can’t let that happen.”

All they can do is take up the chase again. And next time, know what to do when they get there.

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