Football

Running game pivotal for 49ers vs. ODU

Charlotte 49ers running back Kalif Phillips, left, breaks free of the Temple Owls defense on a run during first quarter action at Jerry Richardson Stadium on Friday, October 2, 2015.
Charlotte 49ers running back Kalif Phillips, left, breaks free of the Temple Owls defense on a run during first quarter action at Jerry Richardson Stadium on Friday, October 2, 2015. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Two of Conference USA’s three best running backs will be on the field Saturday afternoon in Norfolk when the Charlotte 49ers visit Old Dominion for the first time.

And 49ers’ coach Brad Lambert says the game could hinge on how Charlotte’s offensive line blocks for Kalif Phillips – and how the 49ers’ defense fares against Old Dominion’s Ray Lawry.

“It all starts with Ray Lawry,” Lambert says of the Monarch sophomore running back, who leads the conference in rushing with an average of 127 yards a game. “It will be critical for our guys to tackle well.

“He’s a big back and is very strong. We’ll have to play well up front.”

Charlotte’s defense has fared well against the run. The 49ers, who share both Old Dominion’s record (2-3) and a three-game losing streak like the Monarchs, rank third in Conference USA, allowing an average of 144 yards. In fact, Charlotte is the league’s No. 1-ranked defense, permitting an average of 333.8 yards a game.

The 49ers have moved the ball well on the ground, led by Phillips, whose average of 101 yards a game rushing ranks behind only Lawry and Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon in the league. Charlotte’s problem has been scoring.

The 49ers rank next-to-last in the conference, averaging 16.2 points. Charlotte was hurt by turnovers in losses to Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic, and the offense moved the ball well against Temple but couldn’t score.

“We’ve got to find a way to get points on the board,” Lambert says. “Something just seems to happen in the scoring zone – a fumble, a missed field goal, some other mistake. A lot of it has been turnovers.”

Charlotte’s coach isn’t pinning all of the blame on players’ performances.

“The main thing has been getting people back,” Lambert says, reeling off the names of several starters who have missed recent games. “We have nearly everyone healthy for this week.”

Lambert says bad weather – the Florida Atlantic and Temple games were played in downpours – and facing good defenses contributed to the woes.

“But everyone plays in bad weather, and we’ve got to overcome that,” he says.

Old Dominion has faced the same problem. The Monarchs, coming off a bye week like Charlotte, are only slightly ahead of the 49ers in scoring offense (16.6 points a game). Both teams are troubled in the passing game. Charlotte ranks 12th of 13 Conference USA teams in passing yardage per game. Old Dominion is 13th.

“Our defense has been playing with an attitude,” Lambert says. “We’ll need that again this week against Old Dominion. We need to take control early.”

Injury update: Lambert says most of the players who missed games recently are ready to go Saturday. That includes Matt Johnson (quarterback), Austin Duke and Corey Nesmith Jr. (wide receivers) and Jamal Covington (offensive line).

He says linemen Eugene German (shoulder) and Devon Johnson (Achilles) appear to be ready, but the 49ers won’t know for sure for a few days.

Future game times: Three of the 49ers’ remaining seven games have kickoff times listed as “TBA,” but Charlotte officials say the Nov. 14 home contest against Texas-San Antonio probably will start at 2 p.m. There’s still no final word on the Halloween home game against Marshall and the Nov. 22 contest at Kentucky. Television networks will have the final word on those kickoffs.

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