This is what the Charlotte 49er fan base has been patiently waiting for. The football program is earning legitimacy in the Conference-USA.
Preseason polls had the 49ers finishing dead last in the C-USA east division. But Charlotte has exceeded expectations, with a 3-3 conference record, as they sit tied for third place in the east division with Middle Tennessee and Florida International. With thirteen seniors starting, the original class of 2012 want to go out with a bang.
“Back in January, we set some goals that our players came up with,” head coach Brad Lambert said. “I think, primarily, our age has helped us. The work that the senior class has put in since 2012, much of our success today can be attributed to that group.”
Winners of three of their last five games, Charlotte has a chance to become bowl-eligible by winning out the rest of the season. Also, Charlotte can match an all-time season-high in wins (five) this week against Middle Tennessee. Looking back at the season, Charlotte has gone through plenty of learning experiences.
First, the Lamar Jackson Heisman coming out party in the opener.
Then, the three-game losing streak that looked all too familiar to the past Charlotte football seasons.
Lastly, the one-point defeat to FIU on homecoming.
Lesson learned for Charlotte. The 49ers are showing how much they have grown in their fourth year of existence by knocking out two birds with one stone. Charlotte has turned into road warriors during the season, with a 3-2 record on the road. What’s more impressive is Charlotte ability to win these road games in such close fashion. In their three road wins, Charlotte has won by a combined 22 points, including a three-point victory over Marshall and a five-point win against Florida Atlantic.
“The guys have stayed in the moment,” Lambert said of success on the road. “They’re practicing hard and preparing hard. We get on the road and just try and find a way to win a game.”
Speaking of moments, one that stands out was after the Marshall game. The 49ers can classify the victory as the biggest in school history, so far. But it wasn’t because of the margin of victory that made it the biggest, it was the reason behind the win that made it significant.
The late Phil Ratliff, the former offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator of the 49ers, was a Marshall standout during his playing career. Ratliff recruited many of the current 49ers and established an attitude throughout the program that resonates to this day. After the Marshall victory, the game ball was delivered to his wife, Jenni, as the players embraced each other on the field.
One of the last players Ratliff recruited has become the face of the program. Hasaan Klugh began the year as a backup to then starting quarterback Kevin Olsen. Klugh’s dual-threat ability has been the catalyst for the 49ers winning ways. Since taking over the offense, Klugh has 13 total touchdowns, eight passing and five on the ground. By the way, the Concord native has two more years of eligibility.
“I would like to sit in the pocket and throw the ball,” Klugh said on his preference. “It’s a great tool to have (being a dual-threat) and having great running backs, it opens up the offense for them.”
Kalif Phillips is at it again. The senior is on pace to for his second 1,000 rushing yard season (828 on the season, so far), after going for 183 against Southern Miss. There’s an air to Phillips’ throne in true freshman Robert Washington. From local East Gaston, Washington has run for 444 yards and five touchdowns this season.
“We want to be able to run the ball first and foremost,” coach Lambert said. “But you want to have balance, so when we run the ball well, it bodes well for our quarterback and our throwing game.”
As for the defense, the unit is bouncing back. After giving up 44.2 points a game in the first five games, the defense has nearly slashed that average in half with 24.6 points in the last five. Also, the defense has recorded the most interceptions in the conference with 14. Klugh and the offense can thank the defense for some of their recent success. Defensive star Larry Ogunjobi is proving why he was on the Bednarik watch list, with 11.5 tackles for loss.
November is the most important month on the football schedule. Some of the players classify it as the “March Madness” of the football season. The 49ers began the month with an impressive victory on the road against Southern Miss, defeating the Golden Eagles by double-digits 38-27.
A hiccup against Rice this past week complicates Charlotte’s chances for their first bowl bid. In order to get to an illustrious bowl game, Charlotte must win out. The 49ers will face Middle Tennesse and UTSA to close out the season.
“Everything you set yourself up for in the season is for November,” Terrance Winchester said. “We’re putting ourselves in the best situation to be successful and trying to get to a bowl game.”
A couple of reasons for optimism? Next week is the final home game for the original class. That means players like Ogunjobi, Phillips, Winchester, Nick Cook and Austin Duke will wear the Charlotte green for the final time at Jerry Richardson Stadium. The following week, Charlotte is on the road to close their season, where they have played much better.