The Charlotte 49ers gave away too much too early Saturday against The Citadel.
After the Bulldogs scored touchdowns on their first five possessions, the 49ers rallied in the second half but fell 63-56 in double overtime.
It was the fourth consecutive loss for Charlotte (3-4). Three of those losses – overtime decisions against The Citadel and Charleston Southern and a 20-13 defeat at Elon – were decided on the last play of the game. The fourth was a narrow 27-24 loss last week at Gardner-Webb.
The 49ers, who trailed The Citadel (2-4) by 18 points in the second quarter, had forced overtime when sophomore receiver Austin Duke scored his fourth touchdown of the game, a 71-yard pass from Matt Johnson, tying it at 49 with 20 seconds left in regulation.
The 49ers scored first in overtime on a 25-yard touchdown run by freshman Maetron Thomas. The Bulldogs answered with two touchdowns, forcing Charlotte to need a touchdown on their second possession to prolong the game.
But the game ended in the second overtime when Johnson’s pass to Dmarjai Devine in the end zone was tipped away by two Citadel defenders in the second overtime.
“I really admire our guys and how hard they played,” said 49ers coach Brad Lambert. “But that’s what makes it hurt so much. I told them they ought to be hurting. It really hurts when you come so close then come up short.”
The game featured a combined 16 touchdowns and 1,368 total yards (689 for Charlotte, 679 for The Citadel). Only Florida State, which rolled up 705 yards against the Bulldogs earlier this season, had more total yards against the Bulldogs.
It was also the second time this season a team had gained more than 600 yards against Charlotte’s defense, which is allowing an average of 39.3 points during the losing streak.
“We just played so badly on defense, we didn’t give ourselves a chance,” said Lambert.
The Citadel’s triple-option offense, orchestrated by quarterback Aaron Miller (Clover, S.C., High), was unstoppable for much of the first half. The Bulldogs led 35-17 after a 4-yard touchdown run by Miller with 6 minutes, 25 seconds left in the half.
The 49ers were able to keep pace, thanks to a career day by receiver Austin Duke, who caught a school-record 12 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for a touchdown and threw a crucial two-point conversion pass. Johnson completed 22 of 43 passes for a school-record 358 yards and four touchdowns.
Charlotte trimmed the lead to 35-24 at halftime on an 83-yard pass from Johnson to Duke – the longest in school history – then cut it further to 35-31 in the third quarter when Kalif Phillips, who finished 164 yards, scored on a 26-yard run.
“I was just finding the weak spots in their zone or man-to-man (defenses),” said Duke. “Dmarjai and Trent (Bostick) are threats on the outside and their corners had to honor them.”
Duke’s fourth touchdown, a 7-yard pass from Johnson, cut a Citadel lead to 42-40 with 3:58 left in regulation. Charlotte went for two on the conversion and got it when Johnson handed off to Phillips, who handed it to Duke, who threw to a diving Devine in the end zone to tie it at 42.
Both teams scored touchdowns in the final two minutes of regulation.
The game took its toll on the 49ers’ health. Nose tackles Larry Ogunjobi (ankle) and Tanner Fleming (knee) didn’t finish the game. They were replaced by converted offensive lineman Zach Bumgarner and Hayden Beck, who played on the 49ers’ scout team in practice last week. Linebacker Dustin Crouser (neck stinger) and Phillips (concussion) were also hurt.
The 49ers have their first bye of the season next week before returning to face James Madison at Richardson Stadium on Oct. 25.
“I told Matt (Johnson) that we had key moments that we need to do better on,” said Duke, who, despite his big day, also dropped two passes that would have likely gone for touchdowns. “I don’t drop those two and we have key touchdowns. Instead we’re having to have make up touchdowns. That changes the whole momentum, the whole outcome of the game.”