The Charlotte 49ers were cruising right along entering the fourth quarter of their college football game Saturday against N.C. Central.
The 49ers led by 40 points and seemed to be 15 quick minutes away from opening the season with their third consecutive victory.
Charlotte ultimately triumphed, but it was anything but simple as the 49ers outlasted the Eagles 40-28 at O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium.
N.C. Central (1-2) made things interesting by scoring four fourth-quarter touchdowns – some against Charlotte’s second-teamers, but others against starters who returned in an effort to slow down the fast-closing Eagles.
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“They forced us to play a full football game,” said 49ers sophomore quarterback Matt Johnson, whose huge night (a school-record 150 yards rushing, 143 yards passing) was tempered somewhat by a fourth-quarter fumble that led to an Eagles touchdown. “You can’t say enough about the resiliency of (N.C. Central).”
The victory wasn’t assured until 49ers cornerback Tank Norman intercepted N.C. Central quarterback Malcolm Bell with 1 minute, 51 seconds remaining.
“We needed a big play, and I was glad to step up and provide it for us,” Norman said. “We needed to get off the field.”
The outcome was different from the teams’ 2013 meeting. In the third game in Charlotte football history, the Eagles won 40-13, forcing seven 49ers turnovers – including five interceptions by Johnson.
But from Saturday’s first play from scrimmage – a 65-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Austin Duke – Charlotte dominated in every way – at least through three quarters.
The 49ers (3-0) scored on five of their first nine possessions and led 33-0 at halftime. Defensively, Charlotte allowed the Eagles into Charlotte territory just twice. The only turnover forced by the 49ers in the first half resulted in a 52-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by safety Branden Dozier.
Kicker Blake Brewer hit both of his field-goal attempts from 24 and 28 yards. Brewer would miss a 24-yard field goal in the fourth quarter during the Eagles’ rally.
“We talked about trying to get off to a fast start, and, unfortunately, we didn’t do that,” said Eagles coach Jerry Mack, whose team was also penalized 11 times for 112 yards. “We came out really flat, (on) offense and defense, to be honest with you – (especially) giving up a touchdown the first play of the game.”
N.C. Central nearly cut into all of Charlotte’s lead in the fourth quarter, the first score coming on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Bell to Adrian Wilkins on the first play of the final period. Jeremy Thompson intercepted a pass by 49ers backup quarterback Lee McNeill and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown. Then, after a fumble by Johnson (who had come back in the game), Central cut it to 40-21 on a 15-yard pass from Bell to Jvon Simmons.
Bell replaced starting quarterback Quinn Billerman in the second quarter, after Billerman completed five of 11 passes for just 17 yards.
Central cut it to 40-28 on a 3-yard touchdown run by Andre Clarke with 3:54 remaining.
“There will be some huge learning lessons from this,” 49ers coach Brad Lambert said. “We wanted to get some of the younger guys some experience. Then things start going wrong and everything gets out of kilter.”
Three 49ers left with injuries. Running back Kalif Phillips, who gained 104 yards and scored twice, hurt his shoulder in the third quarter and offensive lineman Eugene German and linebacker Caleb Clayton-Molby left with knee injuries. Lambert said he expects Phillips to be back for Charlotte’s game next week at Elon, but didn’t know about the severity of German and Clayton-Molby’s injuries.