Gardner-Webb settled the score with Charlotte on Saturday, beating the error-prone 49ers 27-24 at Spangler Stadium.
The Bulldogs (3-3) took advantage of sloppy special teams and a multitude of penalties to hand the 49ers (3-3) their third consecutive close loss.
The 49ers allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, muffed a punt, had a bad snap on a punt and missed two field goals. Combine that with 10 penalties for 90 yards and it’s not exactly a recipe for success, especially in a close game against a team that was looking for payback for a 53-51 loss last season.
“If you don’t play good on special teams and have a lot of penalties, you’re going to lose,” said 49ers coach Brad Lambert.
Lambert took responsibility for the special teams problems. The 49ers don’t have an assistant coach in charge of special teams; Lambert handles them.
Still, the 49ers made it close late in the fourth quarter. Matt Johnson hit Austin Duke on an 80-yard touchdown pass with 2 minutes, 21 seconds remaining, cutting the Bulldogs’ lead to 27-24.
But after the Bulldogs recovered an onside kick (their hands-team includes All-American receiver Kenny Cook, who snagged the kick), Gardner-Webb was able to run out the clock.
“These close ones really get to you,” said 49ers nose guard Larry Ogunjobi, who had a school-record four tackles for loss. “Everybody makes mistake and nobody’s perfect 100 percent of the time. But it’s a mixture of everything – leadership and experience. We need to eliminate (the mistakes).”
Penalties also cost the 49ers in the first two games (against Elon and Charleston Southern) of this three-game losing streak.
The 49ers offense, while inconsistent for much of the day, again posted big numbers. Charlotte had 417 yards (Gardner-Webb had 441), with Johnson throwing for 255 yards and running for 64 more. Tailback Kalif Phillips rushed for 96 yards, while Duke caught seven passes for 129 yards. Dmarjai Devine also had two receptions for 114 yards and his first touchdown as a 49ers player.
The victory was a measure of revenge for the Bulldogs. Charlotte beat Gardner-Webb 53-51 last season at Richardson Stadium, scoring 29 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
“With the way last season’s game in Charlotte ended, this was an important game for us,” said Gardner-Webb quarterback Lucas Beatty, a former Olympic High star who completed 32-of-47 passes for 362 yards and a touchdown. “We knew Charlotte would have confidence late in the game. Over the last two years, this matchup has turned into somewhat of a rivalry and today lived up to that.”
Mistakes cost the 49ers in the first half, which ended in a 17-17 tie.
On its first drive, Charlotte moved to the Gardner-Webb 6, but a personal foul on offensive tackle Jamal Covington pushed the ball back to the 19. The 49ers had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Blake Brewer.
Then came Charlotte’s first special-teams error: Gardner-Webb’s J.J. Hubbard returned Brewer’s ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. It was the third return for a touchdown in Hubbard’s career, which ties a Big South Conference record.
In the second quarter, the 49ers had the ball at the Bulldogs’ 18 after a 55-yard pass from Johnson to Devine, but successive penalties (holding, offensive pass interference), moved it back to the 38. After an 8-yard run by Phillips, Brewer missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt.
Trailing 14-3, the 49ers took a 17-14 lead on a 59-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to Devine and a 39-yard interception return by Branden Dozier (off a tip by linebacker Tyler DeStefani).
The Bulldogs might have led at halftime, but missed two field goals – a 23-yarder by Paul Schumacher and a 32-yarder by Grayson Gregory.
But Schumacher nailed a 35-yarder on the final play of the half.
“Hitting that field goal at the horn gave the entire team a lift,” said Bulldogs coach Carroll McCray. “I thought it was a key play.”
Gardner-Webb pushed the lead to 10 points in the second half on a 71-yard touchdown pass from Beatty to Deonte Swinton and a 21-yard field goal by Schumacher.
Schumacher’s field goal was set up after Charlotte’s Ardy Holmes muffed a punt after being bumped by teammate Duke, who was running with a Gardner-Webb player.
“It’s very frustrating to have another game end up like this,” Johnson said. “Once again, it’s the little things that are hurting us leading up to the end.”