There were a lot more “what if’s” for the Charlotte 49ers coaching staff to deal with this week than in their opening two games.
After a pair of decisive losses – 24-7 to Eastern Michigan, then 55-7 to Kansas State – the 49ers battled back from an early deficit Saturday night in their home opener but fell short, losing 35-31 to N.C. A&T.
The biggest “what if” surrounds the pass thrown by Charlotte quarterback Hasaan Klugh in the closing minutes, with the 49ers at the Aggies’ 30, trailing 28-25. A field goal would have tied the game, but Charlotte was trying to get a bit closer, to make the field goal easier.
Instead, Klugh’s pass was picked off by Franklin “Mac” McCain III, and he dashed 80 yards for the decisive touchdown.
McCain, who had two interceptions in the game, is the grandson of the late Franklin McCain, one of four N.C. A&T students who took part in the 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro. That sit-in was a central event in the civil rights movement. McCain, who died in 2014, later became an executive with Celanese and lived in Charlotte.
“We dug ourselves in too big of a hole,” Charlotte coach Brad Lambert said afterward. “We have to be ready to play at the start.”
Here are five takeaways from the 49ers’ home opener:
Be ready at the start
The Aggies fumbled away the opening kickoff, and Charlotte converted, scoring for a 7-0 lead. On their next three series, the Aggies drove 90, 71 and 81 yards for touchdowns. They led 21-7 and had a 242-38 advantage over Charlotte in total yardage.
The 49ers have been outscored 76-34 in the first half this season.
Discovered: A running back
Lambert has said repeatedly that running backs Benny LeMay and Robert Washington will share duties, but LeMay, of Butler High, looked like a starter Saturday evening. He rushed for a career-high 158 yards, 125 of those in the second half. The running attack wore down N.C. A&T, and the 49ers probably wished the game had lasted another five minutes.
Out with the ‘out’ passes
McCain’s pick six came on a pass by Klugh on a sideline “out” route – with Klugh throwing across the field to a receiver headed toward the sideline. Klugh has been victimized by a pick six in each of Charlotte’s three games this season.
Don’t look for many of those passes in the future.
“We’ve got to put Hasaan in a position where we don’t have him doing things he shouldn’t be trying,” Lambert said. “We have to watch where we’re throwing the ball.”
Someone’s going to a bowl
… And it looks like the Aggies. N.C. A&T is 3-0 and appears to be the power of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The MEAC and Southwestern Athletic Conference champions meet Dec. 16 in the Celebration Bowl, at Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Charlotte, meanwhile, will need to finish 6-3. The 49ers probably will be favored Saturday against Georgia State and have winnable games against Conference USA foes Florida International, UAB and Florida Atlantic. But they’ll need two victories against Marshall, Western Kentucky, Southern Mississippi, Old Dominion and Middle Tennessee. All but Marshall are considered bowl contenders.
Love those in-state opponents
Playing an in-state opponent with a large fan base is a financial and artistic success. Saturday’s game drew a Richardson Stadium record crowd of 18,651, and that included several thousand Aggie fans. It was an electric atmosphere.
Appalachian State visits Charlotte next Sept. 8, and it’s difficult to imagine where 49ers officials will put all the fans. That game probably could draw 25,000 to 30,000 fans.
The 49ers, who had a pair of one-point losses and a seven-point loss at home last season, need to keep the home fans happier.
Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle