Five takeaways from the Charlotte 49ers’ 45-9 loss to Appalachian State on Saturday in front of a record crowd of 19,151 at Richardson Stadium:
The little things count
Charlotte (1-1) knew it would have to play a near-perfect game against the Mountaineers (1-1) to stand any chance of winning. The 49ers didn’t come close to doing that.
Charlotte had nine penalties for 80 yards, and many of them were critical. Trailing 10-0, the 49ers had a chance to get back into the game early in the second quarter after a 16-yard run by tailback Benny LeMay put them in business at the Mountaineers 7. After a 4-yard loss by Hasaan Klugh, the 49ers moved backward twice because of penalties — an intentional grounding by quarterback Chris Reynolds and a holding call on guard Jalen Allen. The 49ers managed a 46-yard field goal from Jonathan Cruz, at least, but they needed more.
Then there were big plays — termed “goofy” by 49ers coach Brad Lambert — that decided the game in the second half. Each produced an Appalachian touchdown: a 59-yard punt return by Thomas Hennigan, a 90-yard pass from quarterback Zac Thomas to Corey Sutton and a fumble recovery in the end zone by Austin Exford.
Outside of those key problems, the 49ers didn’t play poorly. They shut down Appalachian’s run game, holding tailback Jalin Moore to 38 yards on 11 carries (although that opened up the Mountaineers passing game, where Thomas completed all 14 of his pass attempts). Although they couldn’t get the ball in the end zone, the 49ers converted eight of 17 third downs. The 49ers are converting 47 percent of their third downs, a vast improvement on last season’s 26 percent.
Some positive signs there, but too much sloppiness elsewhere.
After Reynolds (12-of-22 for 108 yards) beat out 2017 starter Klugh and Miami transfer Evan Shirreffs for the starting quarterback job, Lambert said there would still be a place in the offense for Klugh. That didn’t happen in a season-opening victory against Fordham, but Klugh was in for several snaps against Appalachian, missing on both of his pass attempts and rushing 10 times for 23 yards.
Lambert said there will continue to be a “package” for Klugh, who is a threat with his legs but not as suited to new offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery’s pro-style system. That’s something that will make the 49ers offense a preparation challenge, although Klugh wasn’t used with much creativity by Montgomery against the Mountaineers. Going for it on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter, Klugh went straight up the middle out of the shotgun formation and was easily stopped for a 1-yard loss.
Shirreffs, who missed a chunk of time during preseason camp with a hamstring injury, is now out for 4-6 weeks with another injury, the nature of which Lambert wouldn’t divulge.
“Patience ... It’s all part of His plan,” Shirreffs tweeted after the game.
Found: A kicker
Cruz, a true freshman, accounted for all Charlotte’s scoring with field goals of 46, 54 and 48 yards. The 54-yarder was second-longest in school history. All four of his kickoffs went for touchbacks, which was important considering Appalachian’s Darrynton Evans returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown against Penn State a week earlier. It looks like the arrival of Cruz, who has made five of six field goal attempts, has solved a serious problem the 49ers had last season, when three kickers combined to miss nine of 13.
Pass protection woes
Reynolds has been sacked six times in two game — three against Fordham; three against Appalachian State. With starting guard Nate Davis serving a four-game suspension for academic eligibility issues, the 49ers offensive line has yet to jell into one of the team strengths it was anticipated to be. Run blocking has been OK — LeMay averages 5.3 yards per carry — but pass protection needs to improve.
The 49ers close out their three-game season-opening homestand with a Conference USA opener against Old Dominion (0-2) on Saturday. The Monarchs dropped their league opener to Florida International 28-20 and were blown out 52-10 by Football Bowl Subdivision newcomer Liberty. This might be the best chance the 49ers have at grabbing a conference victory (and getting off to a good start in the league in the process), against an ODU team they lost to 6-0 last season in Norfolk, Va.