Just what is it about the first offensive series that goes either very wrong or very right for the Charlotte 49ers this season?
In each of Charlotte’s five games, something significant has happened on either the first or second offensive play from scrimmage – or both. Fortunately for the 49ers (3-2), when there have been mishaps, they haven’t cost them points:
• Against Charleston Southern on Saturday, receiver Austin Duke – who has largely corrected a problem with dropping the ball this season – did just that, mishandling a pass from Matt Johnson over the middle. The ball popped out of Duke’s hands and into the grasp of Buccaneers defensive back Troy McGowens. Charleston Southern wasn’t able to capitalize but went on to win 47-41 in overtime.
• Against Elon two weeks ago, running back Kalif Phillips inadvertently bumped Johnson as he dropped back to pass on the second play of the game. Johnson fumbled, with Elon linebacker Odell Benton recovering. The Phoenix drove to the 49ers 33 but missed a field-goal attempt. Elon would win 20-13.
• Against Campbell in the season opener, the ball slipped out of Johnson’s hand as he attempted a pass on the game’s second play. On the third play, Johnson’s pass intended for Dmarjai Devine was intercepted. The Camels couldn’t do anything with that turnover either, missing a 42-yard field goal attempt as Charlotte won 33-9.
It has not all been bad for Charlotte early on. Johnson hit Duke on a 65-yard scoring pass against N.C. Central to open what would eventually be a 40-28 49ers victory.
And Charlotte’s first two plays against Johnson C. Smith – a 21-yard pass from Johnson to Phillips and a 22-yarder to H-back Justin Bolus – set the tone for a 56-0 victory.
“I don’t know what it is; it’s been crazy stuff,” said 49ers coach Brad Lambert, whose team plays Saturday at Gardner-Webb (2-3).
Lambert actually is more concerned about what has happened at the end of Charlotte’s last two games – losses to Elon and Charleston Southern. The 49ers were in position to win both, but mistakes cost them.
Johnson threw what could have been a potential game-winning or -tying touchdown pass to Corey Nesmith as time expired against Elon, but Johnson was over the line of scrimmage when he threw the ball. Even if Johnson hadn’t been penalized, a holding call would also have nullified the score.
And in overtime against Charleston Southern, a 12-yard run by Johnson to the Buccaneers 1-yard line was called back for holding. After Blake Brewer missed a 30-yard field-goal try, Charleston Southern scored on its first possession to win the game.
“It’s a little frustrating to make mistakes like that down the stretch,” Lambert said. “We’ve got to take care of that part of it, especially when the game is on the line. That’s what I love about overtime: Everything is magnified. We’ve got to focus on those critical times and not get penalties.”
• Nesmith, who returns punts and kicks, will be out for at least a month with a broken foot. Lambert said offensive guard Casey Perry (knee), receiver Trent Bostick (concussion) and defensive ends Brandon Banks (foot) and Mark Pettit (concussion) are day-to-day for Gardner-Webb. Defensive back Terrance Winchester, who missed the last two games with a knee injury, will return against the Bulldogs.
• Injuries have hit Gardner-Webb hard this season. Preseason Big South and All-American candidate linebackers Tanner Burch and Chad Geter will both miss Saturday’s game, as will center Ashanti McPhee, offensive tackle David Sutton and receiver Kalay Jones. All-American receiver Kenny Cook missed two-plus games with a hamstring problem but will play against the 49ers.
• 49ers freshman Maetron Thomas, the team’s third-leading rusher with 170 yards on 29 carries, hasn’t played the last two games because of what Lambert calls “off-field issues he needs to straighten out.”