CHARLESTON The Charlotte 49ers learned more difficult lessons in their 36-14 college football defeat against Charleston Southern on Saturday at Buccaneer Field.
Mistakes and missed opportunities in the second half played a big part in costing the 49ers (4-4) a shot at upsetting the Big South’s Buccaneers (8-1), who are ranked 24th in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision’s coaches poll.
But the 49ers also couldn’t get a handle on Charleston Southern’s triple-option offense, which produced 548 yards – a season high against the first-year 49ers. Running back Christian Reyes ran over and through the Charlotte defense for 181 yards and 26 carries.
The 49ers trailed by just seven points – 21-14 – after three quarters. It was then that a self-induced fourth-quarter meltdown began – including a safety, a missed field goal, an interception and a fumble – to put an end to their chances.
“We can’t make the mistakes we made today and win,” said 49ers redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Johnson, who accounted for most of Charlotte’s 305 total yards with 183 yards passing and 47 rushing. “We kind of set ourselves back. It’s a different game without those mistakes.”
The 49ers were also penalized eight times for 55 yards, some of them coming at inopportune times when Charlotte was moving on offense.
“We’re driving down the field, then we’re getting penalties,” said 49ers coach Brad Lambert. “Those were killing our drives.”
The 49ers were staying within striking distance of the Bucs, narrowing their lead to 21-14 when true-freshman Khalif Phillips scored on a 14-yard run with 6 minutes, 52 seconds left in the third quarter.
And when Bucs quarterback Daniel Croghan fumbled at the 49ers 3 on the second play of the fourth quarter, it appeared Charlotte’s chances at an upset were still alive.
But 49ers running back Alan Barnwell was brought down before he could get out of the end zone by tackle Caleb Batchelor. The safety upped Charleston Southern’s lead to 23-14.
The 49ers got the ball right back when Damarrell Alexander recovered the ensuing free punt. But the 49ers couldn’t do anything with that break.
By that time, Charlotte had started to slow the Charleston Southern offense, which included large doses of Reyes, who broke the Bucs’ single-season rushing record (he has 953 yards) during the game.
So the 49ers were still in it when kicker Blake Brewer lined up a 47-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter and the deficit still nine points, a two-possession game. But Brewer’s kick was wide right.
That’s when the turnovers began for the 49ers, extinguishing their hopes.
First, Johnson was intercepted by Bucs linebacker Adam Witzmann at the 49ers 29. Charleston Southern quickly turned that into a 5-yard touchdown run by quarterback Kyle Copeland.
Then Barnwell fumbled at the 19. Again, the Bucs converted quickly, with Mike Holloway scoring on a 5-yard run. That made it 36-14 with 3:43 left.
The 49ers’ offense struggled to find much consistency, with Johnson completing 16-of-31 passes for 183 yards. He was also the team’s leading rusher with 47 yards. Johnson, who entered the game with six games with at least 250 yards passing, appeared to be off on his timing on several passes and missed open receivers at other times.
“I felt like I couldn’t get my eyes right today,” said Johnson. “I didn’t put the ball where it needed to go. I need to have my head right next time.”
“Next time” is next Saturday at sixth-ranked Coastal Carolina, which will probably be the best team the 49ers will face this season.
“We’ve got to have that mentality that we had against Gardner-Webb,” said Lambert, referring to his team’s 53-51 victory against the Bulldogs earlier this season. “We’ve got a great opportunity to play a top (10) team in their place. We win that one, we can raise some eyebrows.”
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14
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