Tom Sorensen

Sorensen classic: Charlotte 49ers at their best when they needed to be

Charlotte 49ers receiver C.J. Crawford (12) falls into the end zone for a touchdown reception over Gardner-Webb defenders Brandon Swayze (29) and Lonnie Johnson (24) on Oct. 5, 2013, in a game that featured 66 first downs and 16 scoring plays.
Charlotte 49ers receiver C.J. Crawford (12) falls into the end zone for a touchdown reception over Gardner-Webb defenders Brandon Swayze (29) and Lonnie Johnson (24) on Oct. 5, 2013, in a game that featured 66 first downs and 16 scoring plays.

This story was originally published on Oct. 6, 2013.

The beauty of sports is that it can surprise you. You don’t know what’s going to happen. A game is going a certain way, a team is in command, an outcome inevitable.

And then it’s not.

Gardner-Webb scored its first points with 8 minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the first quarter at Richardson Stadium on Saturday. The Bulldogs would lead by seven, by 10 and, with 5:30 remaining in the third quarter, by 21.

Quarterback Lucas Beatty, a former Olympic High standout, was unstoppable, especially when he threw to 6-foot-4 Kenny Cook. The Bulldogs came in ranked 25th by the FCS and spent most of the afternoon proving it.

And then the game turned. The Charlotte 49ers, a first-year team made up primarily of first-year players, took off. They scored their last three touchdowns from 21, 48 and 56 yards.

They intercepted a pass, added a safety and recovered a fumble.

They cut the lead to 14, and then to 12, and then to five, and with 3:15 remaining they took their first lead. They scored 29 straight points. The 49ers are undefeated when they score 29 straight points. The comeback was the greatest in Charlotte football history.

The comeback was stunning, the victory exhilarating. If you were in the stadium, you will remember this one. And if you weren’t, you’ll be tempted to claim you were. The 49ers won 53-51.

And you probably weren’t at the game. Attendance was listed at 12,222. There were not 12,000 fans, not close.

The 49ers began to celebrate early. On the touchdown that gave them their first lead they were called for two penalties for celebrating excessively. They had to kick off from their 15. Come on. Act like you’ve been there - oh.

How did they celebrate after the game? Quarterback Matt Johnson planned to go home to Newton, and on Sunday eat lunch with his grandmother. Anybody top that? Linebacker Mark Hogan taped the game and said he’d spend his Saturday night in front of the TV. For what it’s worth, coach Brad Lambert was in the audience as they spoke.

The game was, for the school, its fans and college football in Charlotte a three-hour and 43-minute celebration.

“It was one of the most fun days of my life, “ says Johnson, who completed 27 of 46 passes for 342 yards and five touchdowns.

But there also was a numbing quality to the comeback.

“I think most of us were almost in tears, “ says receiver Austin Duke, who caught two of Johnson’s touchdown passes. “Like this was a big statement for our program. And just feeling like that is so surreal and it still hasn’t hit me yet.”

The quarterbacks hit almost every pass they threw. The numbers are staggering. I’d read them, and before I was willing to write them, read them again.

The teams together ran 186 plays. They amassed 1,163 yards. They picked up 66 first downs. They scored on 16 plays.

The numbers on the stat sheet the 49ers distributed after the game had no room remaining under Scoring Plays. So Gardner-Webb’s final touchdown wasn’t on it.

Alan Barnwell scored Charlotte’s final touchdown with 2:19 remaining. He went off guard. He was stuffed. He went off tackle. He was stuffed. He went outside. He was free. He ran 56 yards for a touchdown, and now the 49ers were up by eight.

The effective Gardner-Webb offense drove 72 yards for a touchdown to pull within two. But Beatty was hit as he threw for the two-point conversion. The 49ers recovered the onside kick and somewhere a celebration began.

If you’re a fan of Charlotte’s program, you celebrated because you saw an amazing game. You also celebrated because the 49ers were out of this one. They trailed by 21 with less than a quarter and a half to play to a team they couldn’t stop.

And they’re freshmen. They’re mostly redshirt freshmen, but they’re freshmen. The last comeback they were part of was in high school or in a pick-up game. This experience, at the collegiate level, is new.

Yet Lambert and his staff kept the players up, kept them engaged, kept them calm and, most importantly, kept them believing that they could win.

Trent Bostick, who ran a post pattern and caught a 48-yard touchdown pass with 3:15 remaining, quotes offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen: “Be at your best when your best is needed.”

Bostick was and the 49ers were.

They all were.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen