It took the start-up Charlotte 49ers six games to play a game for the ages.
Trailing 25th-ranked Gardner-Webb by 21 points after three quarters, the 49ers rallied with 29 consecutive points of their own – but then had to sweat out a two-point conversion attempt in the final seconds by the Bulldogs in a 53-51 Charlotte victory before a crowd of 12,222 at Richardson Stadium.
“Surreal,” is how 49ers quarterback Matt Johnson described a game that included 1,153 yards in total offense and enough twists and turns to last an entire season or even two.
The Bulldogs (4-2) led 45-24 entering the fourth quarter, appearing to have blown the game open after scoring 21 unanswered points in the third quarter.
But the 49ers (4-2) reeled off 29 straight points – 22 coming in a breathless three-minute stretch that turned the game on its head and gave the 49ers a 53-45 lead with 2 minutes 19 seconds remaining.
The 49ers – who played a turnover-free game – would need each of those final three touchdowns by Austin Duke (a 21-yard pass from Johnson), Trent Bostick (a 48-yarder) and Alan Barnwell (a 56-yard run), because the Bulldogs had another in them that nearly sent the game into overtime.
Gardner-Webb came right back with a final touchdown with 31 seconds left, and it wasn’t until a pass by Bulldogs quarterback Lucas Beatty fell to the ground on a two-point conversion attempt that the 49ers could breathe.
“There was never a time that we were down,” said Duke, a former Independence High player who caught another scoring pass in the second quarter and was one of 17 freshmen in Charlotte’s starting lineup. “If you give our offense a whole quarter, with our tempo, we’re going to get it done.”
The more experienced Bulldogs (one freshman starter) had vaulted into the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision’s rankings with victories over Furman, Wofford and Richmond. The way they started against the 49ers, they looked like a safe bet to keep that success going.
Behind Beatty (Olympic High), the Bulldogs ran out to a 24-14 lead in the second quarter. Beatty, who finished with 389 yards and four touchdown passes, picked apart the Charlotte defense, mostly by finding 6-foot-4 receiver Kenny Cook (10 catches, 136 yards, two TDs) against shorter 49ers defensive backs.
“They used a good mix of running it and passing,” said 49ers linebacker Mark Hogan. “We had pressure on (Beatty), but he did a good job of stepping up and dipping out. They really executed in the first half.”
The 49ers and Johnson, however, kept pace with the Bulldogs in the first half. Getting a 43-yard field goal from Blake Brewer and a 26-yard scoring pass from Johnson to Duke, Charlotte tied it 24-24 at halftime.
The third quarter belonged to the Bulldogs. With the 49ers offense struggling, Gardner-Webb bolted to a 45-24 lead, thanks to a 2-yard pass from Beatty to Earnest Harmon (a transfer from Mississippi), a 1-yard run by Juanne Blount (after a blocked 49ers field goal by Brandon Swayze) and a 27-yard option touchdown pass from receiver Richard Jules to Mike Estes.
But the 49ers cut it to 45-31 on a 5-yard scoring pass from Johnson to C.J. Crawford early in the fourth quarter, then crept a bit closer on a safety when the Bulldogs’ Hudson Smith snapped the ball over punter Jordan Day’s head and into the end zone for a safety.
That made it 45-33 and the comeback was on. Charlotte got the ball back after the safety and Johnson found Duke on his second touchdown catch of the day, cutting it to 45-40 with 4:27 left.
Gardner-Webb punted and the 49ers scored immediately, going ahead on Johnson’s scoring pass to Bostick. That gave the 49ers a 46-45 lead (they failed on a two-point conversion).
Gardner-Webb, desperate now to get its lead back, instead gave the ball back when Blount fumbled and Hogan recovered at the 49ers’ 44. On the next play, Barnwell bounced outside and went 56 yards down the right sideline and the 49ers were up, amazingly, 53-45 with 2:19 left.
But Beatty had something left, driving the Bulldogs to within two points (53-51) when Blount scored on a 1-yard run with 31 seconds left. Beatty was hit as he threw on the two-pointer, though, and that was it.
“This whole team showed a lot of resiliency today, which is rare for a young team,” said Hogan, a graduate student who is one Charlotte’s few upperclassmen. “I saw the (defensive) box score and it wasn’t pretty. I threw it away. But their offense was humming and our offense answered.”
There were big numbers everywhere for both teams. Johnson completed 27 of 46 passes for 342 yards and five touchdowns – and no interceptions. Barnwell had 97 yards rushing, with Kalif Phillips adding 75 and Johnson 73. Bostick had nine catches for 107 yards and a touchdown.
The 49ers, who entered the game leading the nation in takeaways, had three more against Gardner-Webb.
In addition to Beatty and Cook’s big days, Blount ran for 133 yards and two touchdowns for the Bulldogs.
“I think we lost our focus and got rattled a little bit,” said first-year Bulldogs coach Carroll McCray. “We had a hard time settling our team down and we just didn’t catch back up.”
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
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