Clemson didn’t do much that surprised the Charlotte 49ers on Saturday.
Stopping it was another matter.
The Tigers made big plays, took advantage of 49ers errors and generally played like the top-ranked team in a 52-10 victory at Memorial Stadium.
“They’re not number one for no good reason,” said 49ers tailback Benny LeMay. “They’re a great team. They have superior athletes. We knew all that would be a factor in the game. The crowd got involved and it was a hostile environment. It was something we’re not used to.”
To the 49ers’ credit, however, they never backed away from the challenge. They just didn’t do a whole lot to help themselves out.
“We’re still not good enough to shoot ourselves in the foot, turn the ball over, have 11 penalties and expect to be in the game, especially against the number one team in the country,” first-year 49ers coach Will Healy said.
No, but the 49ers (2-2) did manage to somewhat steady themselves after falling behind 31-0 in the second quarter. Helped by a solid running game, led by LeMay’s 81 yards on 18 carries, Charlotte kept the score from billowing overly out of hand.
Clemson (4-0) played well into its depth chart — 111 players — as it won its 19th consecutive game. The Tigers played five quarterbacks, with starter and Heisman candidate Trevor Lawrence lasting just the first quarter. He completed 7 of 9 passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns. The first came on Clemson’s second offensive play, a 58-yard strike to Tee Higgins.
“They were over-matched,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said of the 49ers. “Once we got control of it, we did some selective subbing and then in the second half we did some wholesale subbing. We want to beat our opponent, but we don’t want to embarrass anybody. We could have scored 100 points if we had left (Lawrence) out there. We want to win the game, but win with class.”
The 49ers, who open Conference USA play next week at home against Florida Atlantic, obviously couldn’t match Clemson’s depth.
“They’re going tempo (offensively) with 45 seconds left in the game and we’re tired, we’re worn out,” said Healy. “We could lay down. We didn’t. Time after time we’ve shown we will continue to fight. I hope that becomes a staple of our program.
“I don’t think we quit or laid down. I just don’t think we didn’t executed very well.”
But the no-quit in the 49ers couldn’t overcome a subpar game by quarterback Chris Reynolds, who, at 5-foot-10, struggled to get the ball over Clemson’s taller defensive linemen and completed just 6 of 16 passes for 43 yards. He forced at least two passes into coverage early in the game. One, fortunately for Reynolds, was dropped by a Clemson defender. Tigers defensive back K’Von Wallace intercepted the other and returned 66 yards for a touchdown.
“It will be interesting to see how tight those windows were,” Healy said of Reynolds’ early throws. “There were two others that could have been picked off. Maybe we should have continued to continue to run the ball and live to see another down. Maybe Chris was pressing.”
Then there were the penalties for Charlotte: 11 for 106 yards. There were times when it seemed as if the only way 49ers defensive backs could defend Clemson receivers was to commit a pass-interference penalty. Defensive end Alex Highsmith had one sack, bringing his total to five, tying Larry Ogunjobi’s single-season program record.
The bright spot for Charlotte was the running game, specifically LeMay, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry and nearly broke several long runs. Swinney said Clemson knew what Charlotte has in LeMay, a preseason all-Conference USA selection. The 49ers ran for 153 yards as a team.
“I said coming in, they were easily the best running team we’ve seen,” Swinney said. “(LeMay) is what you want in a zone runner. He’s patient, he’s thick and he’s banging it downhill. He made it a big-boy, pad game. They dented us a little in the first half. It will be definitely be a good tape for us to teach off.”