The Charlotte 49ers will face one of the top football teams in the country Saturday without their starting quarterback.
After sophomore Matt Johnson tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee against James Madison on Oct. 25, he was listed as “week-to-week” by the 49ers (3-5). With third-ranked Coastal Carolina (9-0) coming to Richardson Stadium on Saturday, it will be at least be another week for Johnson. Coach Brad Lambert announced Tuesday that backup quarterback Lee McNeill will start against the Chanticleers.
“Matt is moving around a little better,” said Lambert. “He’s off crutches, walking around and doing his rehab.”
The task for the 49ers against the Chanticleers becomes tougher without their starting quarterback, although McNeill played well after coming in for Johnson against James Madison. What the 49ers really need to avoid against the Big South’s Coastal Carolina, however, is the kind of slow start that has regularly plagued them in a five-game losing streak.
A maddening habit for the for the 49ers is that after they fall behind early, they invariably rally, only to come up short at the end. Those losses have come by an average of 6.2 points.
“It’s really frustrating,” said sophomore linebacker Nico Alcalde. “We’re starting off slowly, but toward the end of these games, we’re in a position to win. If we can put an entire game together ... we’d be doing a lot better.”
Lambert said he’s tried to shake up Charlotte’s pregame routine to help avoid another slow start. But that didn’t work against James Madison, which jumped ahead 21-0 in the first quarter before holding off the 49ers 48-40. In Charlotte’s previous game, The Citadel led 28-10 in the second quarter in what would be a 63-56 double-overtime victory.
Some of the blame can be placed on Charlotte’s young defense. The 49ers, who start eight freshmen or sophomores, are giving up 450.6 yards and 36.5 yards per game. But Lambert also points out that Charlotte’s explosive offense (505.1 yards and 37.9 points per game) has played a role, with early turnovers placing the defense in precarious spots.
“There have been a few games where our defense is starting the game playing in the red zone,” said Lambert. “But then there are games like James Madison, where (the defense) couldn’t get out of its own way.”
Coastal Carolina, which averages 36.6 points and 450.6 yards on offense, has taken notice.
“They have some young guys defensively,” said Chanticleers coach Joe Moglia. “They wind up making some mistakes. But they’re athletic, they get to the ball and they’re going to turn out to be very good football players.”
Lambert said his father-in-law jokingly suggested recently that the 49ers should just spot their opponents 21 points, so they would at least have the full 60 minutes available to make their comback.
“Really, though,” Lambert said, “we just need to play better early in the game.”
• Lambert is not sure who the No. 2 quarterback will be Saturday, saying it will be one of three freshmen – Brooks Barden, Austin Pires or Chris Montgomery. Pires, a walk-on, played at Ardrey Kell High. Montgomery is a slot receiver who played quarterback at Burns High in Cleveland County. The 49ers are hoping to redshirt the highly regarded Barden, so it’s not likely he would play if something happened to McNeill.
• Running back Kalif Phillips (922 yards) is closing in on the 1,000-yard mark for the season. “That doesn’t affect me,” said Phillips, a sophomore from Kannapolis. “I don’t have personal goals. It doesn’t matter about stats. It’s a team thing for me.”
• Coastal Carolina is ranked third in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision’s Sports Network poll and second by coaches. Moglia took a minute Tuesday to clarify the difference between FCS programs like his, and Charlotte’s, which is in a transition season as it moves from FCS to the Football Bowl Subdivision next year.
“They’ve got 75 scholarships and we’ve got 65; that’s (15) percent more than any of us have in FCS,” said Moglia. “That’s always an advantage for them.”
• Although not as new a program as Charlotte, Coastal Carolina has only played football since 2003 and quickly became a FCS power. Two Carolina Panthers –fullback Mike Tolbert and defensive back Josh Norman – are former Chanticleers.