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Reality bites: Charlotte 49ers experience losing for first time in 40-13 defeat to N.C. Central

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

It couldn’t last forever – those days of wine and roses, of beer and barbeque, of 40-point wins and ecstatic fans that had marked the Charlotte 49ers’ first two football games of this millennium.

But who would have thought the era of good feelings would end this badly? N.C. Central sent Charlotte reeling into reality Saturday afternoon, whipping the 49ers 40-13 before a startled sellout crowd at Richardson Stadium.

It was the first time the 49ers had played a team that could give out as many scholarships as they can, and it did not go well. Charlotte quarterback Matt Johnson had a nasty game, throwing five interceptions, and his day was a fitting symbol for the 49ers’ afternoon.

N.C. Central is not a great team. The Eagles had lost to Duke 45-0 in their opener. But the Eagles played smarter, better, more athletic football than Charlotte on Saturday.

It felt like the first time something goes wrong in what you thought was going to be an incredible relationship.

First date: Perfect. Second date: Perfect. Third date: She shows up late, hates the movie you picked and yells at your dog.

The fourth date comes Saturday at James Madison, and that one could be even uglier unless the 49ers play better than this.

The 49ers ran an astounding 106 plays with their no-huddle offense and gained 533 yards, which sounds like a recipe for 35-40 points. But they also had seven turnovers and were terrible in the red zone.

The 49ers fans leaving the game were hot and bothered this time as they got their first dose of the dark side of college football. The crowd had begun at 16,000-plus but dwindled to around 5,000 by game’s end, with the students deserting some of their sections en masse.

The Charlotte 49ers hadn’t lost a football game that counted for more than 60 years (the university’s direct predecessor fielded a team in the late 1940s). But they got started losing this one early, trailing 13-0 at halftime, then giving up a 100-yard touchdown on the second-half kickoff.

“Those plays just break your back,” coach Brad Lambert said.

That play also pointed to another one of the 49ers’ major flaws Saturday: special teams. They had a field goal blocked and gave up a 52-yard kickoff return.

Johnson, who had been so good in Charlotte’s first two games and will at some point be very good again, started rushing his throws. The ball sailed. It was like one of those “Bad Jake” days that Jake Delhomme used to have for the Panthers, as Johnson threw one interception that was taken back for a Central touchdown and fired another pickoff in Central’s end zone on a play where a good throw would have netted six points.

This is how much of the day went: even after the 49ers finally scored a touchdown, which came when they were trailing 33-0, they missed the extra point.

N.C. Central, meanwhile, maximized its talent and speed behind composed quarterback Jordan Reid. The Eagles enjoyed a gorgeous day for football – sunny, breezy and in the 70s – far more than the 49ers and their fans did.

Lambert was hired by the 49ers in March 2011, so he hadn’t lost a game for his first 21/2 years at the school. His team didn't give up, but it did give the ball away, over and over.

We always knew this would be a season filled with firsts. What was mostly left unsaid was that some firsts would be like this. Joy and sorrow are interlaced into every sports season. The 49ers have to learn how to handle them both.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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