The Charlotte 49ers improved to 4-4 with a 20-17 victory Saturday against Southern Mississippi at Richardson Stadium. Here are five takeaways from the game, which sets up a meeting this Saturday for the 49ers at Tennessee:
It’s not a reach to say Charlotte, coming off a 1-11 season in 2017, is as improved as any team in the country. How did that come about? Coach Brad Lambert made major changes in his staff, most notably coordinators in Shane Montgomery (offense) and Glenn Spencer (defense).
Seventeen starters returned from 2017 and the question entering the season was whether that was a good or bad thing. Good, if those now-experienced players showed development. Bad, if they didn’t improve and actually were not capable of competing on the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
The 49ers have been better across the board, especially with players such as linebacker Juwan Foggie, defensive tackle Tyler Fain and running back Benny LeMay turning in all-conference caliber seasons. Then there’s the boost the 49ers have gotten from newcomers, including redshirt freshman receiver Victor Tucker, true freshman kicker Jonathan Cruz and quarterbacks Chris Reynolds (a redshirt freshman who’s out for the season with an ankle injury) and grad transfer Evan Shirreffs.
On a side note, the competition for starting quarterback in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.
The 49ers are 3-2 in Conference USA play and in fourth place in the league’s East Division behind Florida International (6-2, 4-0), Middle Tennessee (5-3, 4-1) and Marshall (5-2, 3-1). With games remaining against FIU and Marshall (as well as Florida Atlantic), Charlotte can be a factor in the East race. The 49ers will undoubtedly be underdogs in each of those games (as they have been all season).
Then there’s the bowl-eligibility situation. In 2016, the 49ers were 4-5 and two victories away from becoming eligible for the postseason. But they lost their final three games.
But should the 49ers get to six victories, a bowl invitation could be forthcoming. C-USA has affiliations with seven bowls (plus one conditionally) and four teams (UAB, North Texas, Louisiana Tech and FIU) are already eligible. Middle Tennessee and Marshall both have five victories. So Charlotte could potentially grab a seventh spot.
Foggie clearly a star
The emergence of Foggie, now the national leader in interceptions (six), has been striking. Foggie, who came to Charlotte as a receiver, has returned two of those interceptions for touchdowns (including one against Southern Miss). Although there are four games left, it’s worth noting it’s the second consecutive season a Charlotte player has led the nation in a defensive statistic (safety Ben DeLuca ended with 4.0 forced fumbles in 2017).
Tucker injury concerns
A concern for Charlotte this week will be the status of Tucker, the team’s leading receiver, who left the Southern Miss game with an apparent hamstring injury. Lambert said Sunday he didn’t know the severity of the injury.
Tucker, who caught four passes for 52 yards against the Golden Eagles, has also been playing with a nagging shoulder injury sustained against UAB in September. Lambert said Tucker will likely have shoulder surgery in the offseason.
Where’s the love from fans?
Low attendance continues to be an issue for the 49ers. An announced crowd Saturday of 8,687 was barely half of 15,314-seat Richardson Stadium’s capacity (the smallest FBS stadium in the country) and among the smallest in program history.
The 49ers, who are 4-1 at home, average 11,379. That number is skewed by the Appalachian State game (19,151, aided by a huge number of Mountaineers fans on hand). A late change to a Thursday, ahead of of Hurricane Florence, no doubt drove down the crowd size (8,204) against Old Dominion.
A vocal faction of fans has for years – decades, actually – complained about the program’s low visibility in the Charlotte-area sports market, often justifiably so. The decision of chancellor Phil Dubois and former athletics director Judy Rose to add football was driven in large part by a fan- and alumni-based initiative.
That the team wasn’t somehow more competitive after only three seasons in the FBS (and blaming Rose for that) has served as a convenient reason by many for the low attendance in recent seasons.
To be fair, college football attendance overall has declined in recent seasons. And the minimum average of 15,000 over a two-year rolling period that’s required for FBS programs can be tweaked by using tickets distributed and student allotment figures.
In the forward-thinking Mike Hill, the 49ers now have a new and popular athletics director. The team is playing markedly better, especially at home and in a stadium that is one of the finest in Conference USA.
Yet the fan support from a university with an enrollment of nearly 30,000 and an alumni base in the Charlotte area of tens of thousands more, continues to be tepid at best.
That’s a shame and worthy of some self-examination for a group of fans that finally got what it wished for but now isn’t supporting it.