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When asked during his postgame press conference what UNC’s ability to score 48 points on the Hokies despite committing 15 penalties – one shy of the school record set in 1975 – meant about his team, running back Gio Bernard quipped, “It means we’re clumsy.”
Head coach Larry Fedora offered his own comedic attempt after the game, saying, “I don’t know, we had what? 87 penalties?”
Entering last weekend’s game, North Carolina was averaging 6.2 penalties for 55.2 penalty yards per contest. After Saturday’s accumulation – 15 penalties for 126 yards – UNC’s averages increased to 7.7 penalties for 67.0 yards per game.
The Tar Heels currently rank 98th nationally in fewest penalties per game and 96th in fewest penalty yards per game.
It’s not difficult to make the case that UNC should have broken the school record. The Hokies declined a roughing the kicker penalty in the first half, and both teams avoided 15-yarders – twice – due to a pair of offsetting penalties in the second half.
The Roanoke Times reported on Tuesday that Virginia Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles told reporters the Hokies coaching staff had turned in “four or five” plays to the ACC office in which they thought holding had occurred. Wiles claimed that the league office agreed.
When asked about the report on Wednesday, Fedora replied: “We got called for a lot of holding, so they must have missed some.”
UNC’s penalties on Saturday were spread throughout all three phases – seven on offense, four on defense and four on special teams.
And while Fedora acknowledged that his staff has stressed cutting down on penalties, there hasn’t been any significant shift in approach.
“I wish I could tell you we’ve emphasized it more than we have in the past, but I would be lying to you,” Fedora said. “We have been emphasizing it every week about playing smart. We’ve been harping on that from Day One. We just did a poor job of it on Saturday.”
Five of UNC’s first seven penalties were of the pre-snap variety, including three false starts on the game’s opening possession. In all, the Tar Heels were flagged for five false starts and one offsides.
“Pre- and post-snap penalties – that’s just being stupid,” Fedora said. “That’s all that is. There’s no excuse for those, so we’ve got to clean those up for sure.”
One penalty, however, served as a reminder that football is a physical game.
On Virginia Tech’s third offensive play of the game, Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas found wide receiver Dyrell Roberts on a crossing route over the middle, but led him directly into a charging Tim Scott. The UNC field corner made helmet-to-helmet contact, prompting a personal foul flag.
“I don’t know what we would tell Tim any different in the situation he was in that game,” Fedora said. “After looking at it on film, I don’t know that we could have coached him any different. I don’t know if he could have reacted any differently, other than just to have jumped out of the way and we’re not going to coach him to do that. Unfortunately, it happened.“
Safety Tre Boston, who was flagged for pass interference on Saturday, told reporters on Wednesday that the team works to correct and limit the mental miscues in practice.
“We go over them on Sunday to make sure that we don’t do it again,” Boston said. “It’s kind of amazing how we won that game with 15 penalties, but that just shows you how good of a team we can be if we eliminate those penalties.”
There’s an element of truth in that statement, but the likelihood of similar success with a similar number of penalties is low. As well as the Tar Heels may be playing, be sure not to confuse them with the penalty-plagued Florida State teams of the 1990s.
Miami welcomes North Carolina on Saturday with a 3-0 ACC record, thanks in part to an ability to capitalize on its opponents’ penalties. In their 44-37 victory over N.C. State two weeks ago, the Hurricanes scored two touchdowns on free plays and added a third after a Wolfpack offsides on a fourth down play in the red zone.
“We’ve got to keep a level head on our shoulders,” sophomore linebacker Tommy Heffernan said. “We’ve got to come out and execute our assignments and not get caught up in anything else, no frustration… Everyone’s going to be a little nervous – you are before every football game – but you can’t let that take a hold of you. You’ve just got to be able to go out and do what we’ve been training to do all week. I think if we do that, the penalties will definitely come down.”
The penalties will have to come down if UNC hopes to post the best record in the Coastal Division. In two conference games, North Carolina has committed 23 penalties for 213 yards.
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