Entering their fifth season as a program, the Charlotte 49ers say their goal this football season is basic: finish.
Last season, when Charlotte finished 4-8, the 49ers were 2-3 in games decided by seven or fewer points. Both close wins came on the road, but there was one loss redshirt junior quarterback Hassan Klugh points to, a 22-21 home loss to Rice on Nov. 12, 2016.
The 49ers blew a 21-0 lead in the second quarter, and Klugh calls it a prime example of how he and his teammates need to finish games better in 2017.
“I think we just took it (that lead) for granted. We learned from that,” Klugh said Thursday at the Conference USA Football Media Kickoff. “We can’t take things for granted. We can’t take a lead for granted. We’ve got to go out and play all four quarters.
“We’re not a team that can sit here and play around with people.”
Between 2013 - the program’s first season - and 2015, Charlotte was 2-7 in games decided by seven points or less, so fifth-year coach Brad Lambert sees winning two of three close contests in 2016 as a giant leap forward, progress he’d like to build on in 2017.
“I think it (losing close games in the past) paid off for us in ’16 when we had some close games in ’15 that we didn’t finish,” Lambert said. “And then in ’16, we had a feel for that and closed out more of those games.
“There’s no question that can really help us move forward in ’17, playing those close games down the stretch. That’s been an emphasis for us all off-season.”
Another big positive Lambert takes from last season is his team tying for the Conference USA lead with 23 forced turnovers and finishing second with a plus-8 turnover margin, two badges of honor for the 49ers.
“That was a big emphasis for us going into ’16 because in ’15 our turnover margin wasn’t very good, so we had to get better,” Lambert said. “Our guys on defense did a really, really nice job of hawking the ball and catching the ball in the secondary.
“The difference for a defensive guy is he doesn’t handle the ball as much as an offensive guy does, so he has to go out of his way to handle the ball a lot, and I think our guys did a good job of that in the offseason.”
Fifth-year linebacker Karrington King, a former Charlotte Catholic standout, needs 12 tackles to eclipse Larry Ogunjobi’s school record. King said he is honored to be mentioned alongside Ogunjobi, who was drafted in the third round by the Browns in April. But he said finishing his college career in a bowl game would supersede individual honors like breaking Ogunjobi’s record.
“It (going to a bowl) would be all for those boys that left us. They made a great foundation for this team,” King said of last year’s seniors. “Now we’re ready to win. We need a bowl game. I told the defense that’s our standard. There’s nothing less. We’re not going for anything less than a bowl game.”