Tuesday, November 23, 2010
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: UVa football team hampered by hankies of gridiron penalties

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Virginia's penalties are a problem. Not only for their practical damage, the tangible yards marched off, but also for the message they send.

Are these guys prepared? Are they focused? Are they disciplined?

It's hard to look at the numbers and answer "yes" to any of those questions.

With an average of 8.45 flags a game, the Cavaliers are the third-most penalized team in the nation going into this weekend's matchup with Virginia Tech. They rank 117th out of 120 Division I-A teams in penalty yardage per game (75.91). Quite frankly, this just doesn't seem very UVa-like.

The players know that. And for a team with little margin for error, the hankies have been harrowing.

"It's definitely frustrating," strong safety Dom Joseph said. "But the whole thing is, you've really just got to stay encouraged and know that we can get better; we can improve."

The problem is, they haven't. If we're to attribute some of these penalties to the growing pains of learning a new system -- alignment errors, communication issues, etc. -- you'd think time and familiarity would alleviate it. But the Cavs have been flagged at least nine times in each of their past six games.

Two weeks ago, they committed a whopping 16 penalties for 145 yards against Maryland -- with 13 different culprits.

"I couldn't tell you," said defensive tackle Nick Jenkins, when asked if he could explain the glut of gaffes. "Things happen. It's the heat of the moment. You pull a shirt and hold a guy to try not to get the quarterback sacked. You jump. You hit a quarterback helmet-to-helmet. It's just little things you don't even think about."

The faces were different, but Monday's UVa football press conference featured many of the same elements of the dozen or so that had come before it on Tech week. The storylines will not change until the results do. So up front, we can remind you of a few things:

n The players realize they are heavy underdogs this week and embrace that role.

n The seniors are looking for a signature win to close their careers.

n The Cavaliers, from coaches on down, admire and respect what the Hokies have built.

n Practice is always a tad more intense this week.

But this time, practices also include an added emphasis on the penalties, because they know they have zero chance unless they play a near-perfect game in Blacksburg.

Penalties, at times, can be like fouls in basketball. The underdog team might commit more because the underdog team is at a physical disadvantage. A hold becomes the only option to prevent a superior defensive lineman from recording a sack. Pass interference might cost the beaten corner 15 yards but saves his team a touchdown.

Virginia's had its share of those. But the Cavs also have committed the preventable kind.

"One of those penalties [against Boston College] was a personal foul penalty where the guy ripped the helmet off John-Kevin Dolce, and he turned around and chased after the guy and got after him. Well, his actions resulted in him being penalized also," Virginia coach Mike London said.

"So the offsetting penalty, you don't mark it off, but it's an offsetting penalty. Then you tell him, 'Hey, listen. Had you not responded or retaliated like that, it would have been a personal foul against them.'

"So you're always trying to teach, and always trying to show them learning situations that we can get better at. This game, again, we're going to try to make sure that we limit any penalties or anything that can happen negatively."

London has reached the baseline wins total to show progress. Four is more than the three from a year ago, even if two came against Division I-AA opponents. The Cavs have been competitive despite their three-game losing streak.

While a fifth victory seems unlikely, there's still an opportunity to show progress by playing a crisp game.

Start with the flags. Then go from there.

Seeing yellow

The nation's most penalized teams:

Penalties per game 1. Arkansas 8.64 2. Troy 8.50 3. Virginia 8.45 4. Baylor 8.42 5. Florida International 8.40

Penalty yards per game

1. Baylor 77.75

2. Southern Miss 77.36

3. Troy 76.20

4. Virginia 75.91

5. Florida International 73.70

Fewest penalties per game 1. Wisconsin 3.00 2. Navy 3.55 3. Penn State 3.64

4. Indiana 4.27

4. Army 4.27

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