A few factors point to Charlotte’s early 2-1 record, but none perhaps is as striking as the 49ers’ improvement on third-down conversions.
The 49ers, who travel to Massachusetts for a nonconference game Saturday, are converting 49 percent of their third downs, a mark that’s third in Conference USA and 21st nationally.
Consider where that’s come from - a 26.0 percent rate that ranked last in the nation during a 1-11 season in 2017.
“I think it’s the play-calling and emphasis on how we’ve been executing,” said senior receiver Workpeh Kofa, who had nine catches for 54 yards in a 28-25 Conference USA victory last week against Old Dominion, a game in which Charlotte converted 9-of-17 third downs. “We know that was a big part of the struggle we had last year. So we want to stay on the field and go far on these longer drives, getting down the field.”
Much of the credit for Charlotte’s third-down improvement goes to redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Reynolds, who has helped the 49ers’ offense stay on the field for an average of 37 minutes, 27 seconds per game, which ranks third nationally behind Army and Rice. With Reynolds at the controls, the 49ers have three drives of 10 or more plays in each of their three games.
Reynolds has kept drives alive by being a relatively mistake-free passer (one interception). Well-suited to first-year offensive coordinator Shane Montgomery’s pro-style system, Reynolds also has run out of trouble when the pocket begins collapsing around him.
“Chris is very composed back there,” Kofa said. “Even with some of the quarterback hurries and rushes he’s getting, he’s finding the right reads on third down and using his legs as a playmaker.”
The 49ers have also been solid running the ball, led by junior Benny LeMay (who averages 87.7 yards per game on a 4.6-yard per carry average) and junior Aaron McAllister (43.7, 4.7).
“If we can keep avoiding lost-yardage plays and penalties - not be in a second-and-20 or first-and-20 (situation), it really benefits you and gives you a chance to convert on third down,” coach Brad Lambert said.
Then there’s the benefit to the defense, which leads the league and is 12th nationally in rushing defense (84.3 yards per game) and is sixth in the league in total yards (353.0).
“Last year it did take a toll on us,” said senior linebacker Juwan Foggie. “We’d be just back on the bench and we’d hear, ‘punt alert!’ We’d just sat down and had to get back up. Now we’re converting on third down and we’re getting our energy back on the bench.”
Senior defensive tackle Tyler Fain (knee) won’t play against UMass. Lambert said Fain is having an MRI done this week to determine the severity of the injury, which occured against ODU.
Scouting the Minutemen
▪ UMass is the second consecutive opponent the 49ers have played that lost its previous game to C-USA’s Florida International. The Minutemen lost to FIU 63-24 on Saturday; ODU lost to the Panthers 28-20 on Sept. 8.
▪ The Minutemen lost quarterbacks Andrew Ford and Ross Comis to injury against FIU. Their status for Saturday’s game is unknown. Third-stringer Michael Curtis finished up for UMass, completing 8-of-15 passes for 158 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
▪ UMass allows 266.2 yards per game rushing, which the 49ers (who average 162.3 yards rushing on offense) will no doubt hope to exploit. Minutemen opponents average 41.8 points.
▪ Receiver Andy Isabella’s speed concerns Lambert. Isabella averages 91.2 yards per game and has three touchdowns.