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McFarling: So far, Hokies are avoiding self-inflicted pain
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McFarling: So far, Hokies are avoiding self-inflicted pain

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Virginia Tech West Virginia Football (copy)

Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente says the team is prepped weekly for specific officiating crews in the hopes of avoiding penalties.

We have reached the “just don’t screw it up” portion of the Virginia Tech schedule. It is fleeting. It will last a grand total of two weeks.

Boston College and Duke are hurting. They’re in the bottom of their respective divisions. They’re both riding four-game losing streaks. They’re tantalizingly beatable.

And the Hokies just have to avoid screwing it up.

How confident are you that they can achieve this? Probably not very. The Hokies were supposed to beat Syracuse and didn’t. They screwed up the end of Notre Dame and West Virginia games. Taking what’s been available has been a challenge for Tech.

But the good news is that the things teams do to mortgage their advantages, the Hokies have largely avoided. They’re in the top 50 in the nation in turnover margin. They’ve committed just 3.88 penalties per game — the third-lowest rate in the country. The 33.25 penalty yards they’ve allowed per game rank fourth-best.

“I hate to even say this out loud, but we’ve been pretty good,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said, when asked about turnovers specifically. “One of the things that’s been kind of odd about this season is when you really look at it, the things that immediately cause you do to lose football games — turn the ball over, take foolish penalties, give up huge plays on special teams — by and large we haven’t done them.

“That maybe kind of adds to the angst you have as a coach. Guys are not doing those things. We had a few more penalties last week, and we addressed that in the meeting the other day, but we’ve been pretty decent when it comes to trying to do those things.”

They’ll need to do so again Friday night. It’s their clearest path to victory against BC. That, and continuing to lean on their emerging running game against an Eagles defense that ranks 10th in passing yards allowed by 91st in rushing yards conceded.

The Hokies are an emotionally mature group. They’ve shown it by putting in reputable performances even in defeat. Mounting frustration when things go wrong often can lead to personal foul penalties, but Tech’s avoided those kinds of meltdowns.

“I’m really proud of that,” Fuente said. “We take each game as kind of an individual season, and we’ve got to make sure that we continue to drive that point home. That’s why I felt obligated [Sunday] night, as good as everybody felt, to try to address a couple of those fouls.

“I think it starts, quite honestly, with understanding how the game’s officiated. We’ve made a concerted effort to work with our officials to have a better understanding.”

Their overall success at minimizing penalties might be partially a function of the schedule. The Hokies have played only two road games in their first eight, so home cooking hasn’t been much of a concern. And outside of Morgantown, they haven’t seen mega-hostile environments, which can ratchet up the false starts.

But Tech’s preparation appears to be a factor, too. The coaches meet with the team every Friday (during a normal week) and spend 10 minutes discussing officiating trends across the country. They’ve worked with officials since the spring to get feedback on how certain plays will be interpreted.

The players take it from there, and concentration is paramount.

“We have to be dialed in on that field,” Tech guard Lecitus Smith said. “You’ve got guys that are going to talk smack and try to throw you off your game, or you’ve got D-lines that are going to make a move call at the last second so we can jump. We fell for it a little bit last week, trying to jump that clock. We know we have to be dialed in this week.”

And the next.

If they are, they might just get themselves a nice little three-game winning streak.

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