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Charlotte 49ers know they can’t afford another slow start. Here’s why.

Charlotte 49ers freshman receiver Victor Tucker, making one of his seven catches in a victory against Old Dominion this season, is expected to play Saturday against Western Kentucky.
Charlotte 49ers freshman receiver Victor Tucker, making one of his seven catches in a victory against Old Dominion this season, is expected to play Saturday against Western Kentucky.

If the Charlotte 49ers want to put a stop to a two-game losing streak Saturday against Western Kentucky, they’ll need to play a whole lot better in the first half.

Whether that would be enough for the 49ers (2-3, 1-1 Conference USA) against the Hilltoppers (1-4, 0-1) at Richardson Stadium will be determined.

But the 49ers can’t play like they did in lopsided losses at Massachusetts (49-31) and Ala.-Birmingham (28-7) — during which they were outscored 56-10 in the first halves of those two games — and expect to be competitive.

“We’ve got to come out with a higher tempo, with higher aggression, instead of sitting back,” redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Reynolds said Tuesday. “We’ve got to get excited about playing ball. Those road games, we were lagging around a little bit.”

The 49ers had last week off after the UAB loss and coach Brad Lambert said working on getting a quicker start against WKU has been a point of emphasis, among other things.

“The bye week felt good for us,” Lambert said. “It comes in the middle of the year — we go hard in August and then have five games. So we take a deep breath, get some guys healthy and hopefully get charged for a seven-week run here.

“So it’s always good to reflect. We’ll go back and look at some of the third-down packages and what we’ve done in the red zone. That’s all real critical in football.”

Said senior linebacker Alex Highsmith: “The past couple of weeks we haven’t started like we want to. We’ll be back home and we’ve got to get back to the feeling of coming out strong like we did the first couple of weeks.”

Shirreffs back

Lambert said junior quarterback Evan Shirreffs, who has been out with injuries for most of the preseason and season, will be back against WKU. Shirreffs will be third-string behind Reynolds and senior Hasaan Klugh, last season’s starter who is also a dangerous runner. Lambert said he still wants to include Klugh in some different packages. Lambert didn’t say whether that meant Klugh would get snaps at quarterback or used elsewhere.

“The good thing about having Evan back is we can use Hasaan a little bit more,” Lambert said. “We have three guys now, and Evan has been practicing and getting a little more reps. That means we can get Hasaan in to affect the game more.”

Another freshman find?

True freshman Victor Tucker, the team’s leading receiver who hurt his shoulder against UAB, is expected to play against Western Kentucky. Another freshman, Rico Arnold, filled in admirably for Tucker against the Blazers, catching six passes for 101 yards.

“Rico is coming on,” said Reynolds. “I tell him after every practice and every game: Keep going, don’t give up, keep working harder. It’s good having those guys in there.”

Scouting the Hilltoppers

▪ Like Charlotte, Western Kentucky is coming off a bye week. Two of the Hilltoppers’ losses have come against Power 5 conference teams — Wisconsin (34-3) and Louisville (20-17). WKU lost its C-USA opener 20-17 against Marshall. Three of WKU’s losses have come by a total of nine points.

▪ A rash of injuries have forced the Hilltoppers to use three starting quarterbacks this season. Senior Drew Eckels started the first two games against Wisconsin and Maine, but was hurt. Davis Shanley started in a victory against Ball State, while Steven Duncan started against Louisville and Marshall.

▪ That kind of uncertainty at the quarterback position has contributed to the Hilltoppers averaging 18.6 points per game, 13th in C-USA. WKU has the league’s worst red-zone offense (68.8 percent). The 49ers are 13th at 80 percent.

▪ It’s difficult to find a Hilltopper among any of the league’s offensive leaders. Shanley is eighth in pass efficiency (136.2) and Lucky Davis ranks 10th in receptions per game (4.8).

▪ Joshua Samuel averages 40.4 yards rushing for WKU, with the team averaging 117.4 yards per game.

▪ Linebacker Masai Whyte has two sacks and an interception.