James Madison strikes early, often, then holds off Charlotte 49ers 48-40

The Charlotte 49ers’ latest loss – a 48-40 defeat against James Madison on Saturday before a homecoming crowd of 15,677 at Richardson Stadium – unfolded the same way most of the others have in what is now a five-game losing streak.

The 49ers (3-5) fell behind early as the defense struggled. They rallied, thanks to receiver Austin Duke and running back Kalif Phillips. They ultimately came up short on the last series of the game.

It was a familiar script, this time ending after the Dukes (5-3) recovered an onside kick after Charlotte had cut the lead to 8 points on an 8-yard touchdown run by backup quarterback Lee McNeill with 2 minutes, 7 seconds left.

“It’s another tough pill to swallow,” said 49ers coach Brad Lambert, whose team fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter. “I love the fight in our team. But we have to work extremely hard to eliminate the mental mistakes. We had too many in the first and fourth quarters, but we settled into it in the second and third quarters.”

Of equal concern to Lambert is the health of starting quarterback Matt Johnson, who left the game in the second quarter with a left knee injury. The extent of the injury wasn’t known immediately after the game.

Johnson hurt his knee at the end of a running play with the 49ers trailing 21-14. He was replaced by McNeill, a former Indian Trail Porter Ridge High standout who had thrown just eight passes this season in mop-up duty for Johnson.

McNeill was sharp, however, completing 18-of-26 passes for 190 yards and an interception.

“It’s always unfortunate to see someone get hurt,” McNeill said. “But I needed to be ready to go. I prepare every week like the starter, and I get as many reps as Matt. So I feel like I was prepared.”

McNeill’s interception, which came early in the fourth quarter, was one of two second-half turnovers that slowed Charlotte’s comeback. The other came when freshman running back Maetron Thomas fumbled at the end of the third quarter after Charlotte trimmed the Dukes’ lead to 35-30.

The 49ers, who fell behind The Citadel 35-17 in the second quarter two weeks ago, found themselves down 21-0 after James Madison’s first three possessions.

Led by Georgia Tech transfer quarterback Vad Lee, the Dukes scored the first three times they had the ball. James Madison completely overpowered the 49ers’ defense, which entered the game allowing an average of 27.7 points and 452.0 yards per game.

“They were running us over in the first quarter,” Lambert said. “We had to settle in and move a little more.”

But after allowing those three touchdowns and 214 yards in the first quarter, Charlotte’s defense made adjustments and stiffened in time for the 49ers’ offense to come to life.

After Charlotte forced the Dukes to punt for a first time, the 49ers cut the lead to 21-7 when Johnson hit Duke on a 98-yard touchdown pass, the longest play in Charlotte’s brief history.

After the Dukes turned the ball over on downs, Charlotte drove 53 yards in seven plays, with Johnson hitting H-back Richard Murphy on a 1-yard pass for a touchdown with 11 minutes, 1 second left in the first half.

Then the game took a major turn when Johnson was hit after running for no gain late in the second quarter. He was helped to the sideline, then went to the locker room before the half ended.

James Madison made it 28-14 at the half on an 8-yard run by Lee. The big play in the drive came on a broken play, when a scrambling Lee found Jauan Latney open in the flat. Latney took it 51 yards to the 49ers’ 11.

The 49ers stayed in it. Phillips broke loose for a 45-yard touchdown, trimming the Dukes’ lead to 35-30 with 2:41 left in the third quarter. Phillips ended with 168 yards and two touchdowns and now has 922 yards and 13 touchdowns for the season.

Lee, who threw for 333 yards and ran for 91, helped re-establish the Dukes’ offensive supremacy in the fourth quarter. James Madison stretched the lead to 48-33 on a 29-yard pass from Lee to Brandon Ravenel with 2:57 left.

And although McNeill’s late touchdown made it interesting, it wasn’t enough again for Charlotte.

The 49ers, who were off last week, have another bye this week before facing third-ranked Coastal Carolina Nov. 8.