Teel: West Virginia exposes Hokies' talent shortcomings

BLACKSBURG — Midway through the second quarter Thursday, Virginia Tech was poised to seize a two-score edge over West Virginia. Grant Wells had thrown his best pass of the night, a 21-yard laser to Kaleb Smith, and the Hokies had a third-and-1 on the Mountaineers’ 18.

But with Tech in a jumbo package, WVU stoned Keshawn King for no gain, prompting a Hokies timeout. Surely the Hokies were plotting something imaginative, anything except another fruitless run between the tackles.

Or not. Again in the shotgun, Wells attempted to plow over the left side.

Not. Even. Close.

Nor was the final margin.

West Virginia 33, Virginia Tech 10.

For the second time in as many 2022 defeats, the Hokies committed 15 penalties, the most damaging by Dax Hollifield and Norell Pollard to extend a second-half Mountaineers’ touchdown drive. But unlike Old Dominion, West Virginia exposed Tech’s talent deficiencies.

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Those shortcomings were most glaring on the offensive line, where the program is so bereft of depth, that the starting five went the distance.

By the time the Hokies attempted to convert the aforementioned fourth-and-1, they had rushed for 7 yards on seven attempts. Their first nine rushes gained 2, -1, 2, 2, 0, 2, 0, 0 and -2 yards.

That’s a net of 5 yards on those nine carries for the math impaired. WVU outrushed Tech 218-35, limiting the Hokies to their most meager ground output since they managed 9 yards in a 2015 loss to Pitt.

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

Running the ball more on this night would have been a fool’s errand.

When your offensive line doesn’t block, and compounds that inability with penalties, you’re going to lose. When the opponent has more dynamic receivers (Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Kaden Prather) and running backs (Justin Johnson and CJ Donaldson), you’ve got a long night ahead.

Indeed, while the season-opening 20-17 loss at ODU created several plausible what-if Tech laments, this was a beatdown, witnessed by a sellout crowd that was long departed by game’s end.

“I told the guys in the locker room, this is kind of where we’re at as a team right now,” first-year Hokies coach Brent Pry said.

He’s not wrong. But while Pry and his staff get a pass for the program’s sub-par roster, they can’t duck responsibility for another 100-plus yards in penalties.

Tech’s statistical database dates to 1987, and Thursday’s 132 yards were the second-most during that span, trumped only by 143 against Florida State in the 2005 ACC championship game.

“We’ve got to do better with penalties,” safety Nasir Peoples understated.

Pry believes the Hokies are panicking and pressing in tight spots, causing the rash of flags.

“We’ve got to coach them through it,” he said.

The Hokies (2-2) have not defeated a Power Five non-conference opponent in more than five years, since their 2017 season-opening victory over the Mountaineers in Landover, Md. Their eight-game skid in such contests includes gutting, last-minute setbacks to Notre Dame and Kentucky (Belk Bowl) in 2019, plus West Virginia and Notre Dame last season.

Indeed, Tech seems to invent ways to lose such matchups. If it wasn’t run-first Kentucky throwing a late touchdown pass, it was the Hokies failing to reach the end zone on four snaps from the WVU 3-yard line.

There was no late-game uncertainty Thursday. Tech led 7-3 when it misfired on those third and fourth downs, only to be outscored 30-3 thereafter. 

More unsettling for the Hokies: Now comes the nastiest stretch of the 2022 docket: at North Carolina, at Pitt, Miami, at N.C. State. That foursome is 10-2 combined, and the Panthers, Hurricanes and Wolfpack are among the Associated Press’ top 25.

“We’ve got to own it,” Pry said of Thursday’s performance, “and we’ve got to be better in a bunch of areas.”

Twitter: @ByDavidTeel

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