Charlotte 49ers football coach Brad Lambert didn’t hesitate Tuesday when asked what he has learned about his team in the first half of this season.
“I’ve learned that we belong,” Lambert said of the 49ers, who take a 2-4 record and a four-game losing streak into Saturday’s noon homecoming contest against Conference USA opponent Southern Mississippi (4-3).
There were questions about whether the 49ers belonged in the Football Bowl Subdivisionbefore the season. A couple of national magazines ranked the 49ers, in their first FBS season, as the 128th – last – team in the division.
But the 49ers have a victory against FBS opponent Georgia State, played a close game against Florida Atlantic, and were beating Old Dominion until the final minute of Saturday’s 37-34 loss.
“We have to close it out,” Lambert said. “Our margin for error is small, so we’ve got to keep pushing when we get a lead. But we’re battling with people.”
Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder, who took his school’s program from Football Championship Subdivision to FBS a few years before Charlotte, said last week that Lambert “is clearly ahead of schedule with this team.”
Lambert said Southern Mississippi offers something the 49ers haven’t seen this season: a two-pronged running attack. Senior Jalen Richard averages 81 yards rushing a game, and sophomore Ito Smith averages 73 yards. They rank sixth and seventh in the conference.
“And their quarterback is really good,” Lambert said of Nick Mullens, who is completing 63 percent of his passes for an average of 335 yards a game. “We’ll need to put pressure on him.”
Charlotte shut down Old Dominion running back Ray Lawry, who had been No. 1 in the league in rushing, limiting him to 34 yards. But the 49ers allowed 365 yards passing and four touchdowns to Monarchs quarterback David Washington.
“We have to put pressure on the quarterback this week,” Lambert said.
Phillips takes the lead: Charlotte running back Kalif Phillips of Kannapolis has taken over as Conference USA’s leading rusher (703). He carried for more than 200 yards against Old Dominion and is averaging 117.2 yards a game this season.
Duke recovering: Lambert said standout receiver Austin Duke, an Independence High product who was bothered with back problems for several games, is improving physically.
“Saturday, for the first time in a while, I thought Austin was back to being who Austin is,” Lambert said. “You can see him getting back to his old self.”
Lambert said Duke was open on a long pass play, but a 49ers lineman missed a block and quarterback Lee McNeill was sacked.
Game times set: Kickoff times are set for Charlotte’s final two home games this season.
The Oct. 31 game against Marshall will kick off at 3:30 p.m. The home finale, Nov. 14 against Texas-San Antonio, will start 2 p.m. Start time for the Nov. 22 game at Kentucky won’t be announced for another two weeks.