The Charlotte 49ers took their talents to South Beach on Saturday afternoon in search of their first Conference USA victory in a showdown with the FIU Panthers. The Niners shot themselves in the foot on several occasions and fell 48-31 on the road for their seventh consecutive defeat. A pair of special teams blunders derailed Charlotte early as a 24-point halftime deficit proved too much to overcome.
The quarterback situation in Charlotte has been impossible to figure out all season and nothing changed on Saturday. The trio that has struggled mightily throughout the entire 2015 season combined to complete 25-of-38 pass attempts for 264 yards. Each of the three quarterbacks threw a touchdown pass, snapping a drought that lasted nearly two months without a scoring toss. Head coach Brad Lambert wouldn’t commit to a starting quarterback moving forward when asked after the game.
“You just have to trust the system and the game plan,” said wide receiver Austin Duke after Charlotte’s best passing performance in months.
“That’s what this season has been all about. We’ve hit some hiccups, but if we keep doing what we’re doing things will click.”
Duke put together the type of performance Niner fans have become accustomed to over the past two seasons. The redshirt junior hauled in all three touchdowns while eclipsing 100 yards for the ninth time in his career, but just the second time in 2015 after battling a nagging back injury.
The 49ers wasted a golden opportunity as two botched special teams plays resulted in FIU touchdowns, not to mention a pick-six in the second half that put the game out of reach. The Niners lost by 17, but gifted 21 points to the Panthers and couldn’t overcome the mistakes.
“We gave up the pick-six in the second half, but up until that we were rocking along pretty solid,” said Lambert.
“But we can’t survive with a blocked punt and a kickoff return that we don’t field. Those are plays that we can’t afford to make.”
The Panthers (5-5, 3-3 C-USA) blitzed the 49ers from the get-go, blocking an Arthur Hart punt on the first drive of the day. Kenyatta Anderson recovered in the end zone as FIU jumped out to an early 7-0 lead over the visiting Niners.
Charlotte (2-7, 0-6 C-USA) answered immediately with an impressive 10-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with the first touchdown pass of the season from quarterback Lee McNeill. McNeill completed four passes, including a 29-yard strike to Duke to knot the score at 7-7 with 10 minutes left in the first quarter. The 49ers had not thrown a touchdown pass since September 12 against Presbyterian.
FIU wasted no time responding to the score as the Panthers pieced together a 73-yard drive on 12 plays. Sophomore quarterback Alex McGough capped the possession with a 15-yard scoring toss to wide-out Clinton Taylor, putting FIU back up by a touchdown late in the opening quarter.
The Panthers broke the game wide open in the second quarter, starting on the second play when Alex Gardener busted up the middle for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the goal-line. McNeill marched the Niners back down the field on the ensuing possession, but Charlotte missed on a crucial scoring opportunity as Blake Brewer couldn’t convert a 45-yard field goal attempt.
The 49ers fought tooth-and-nail throughout the majority of the first half before FIU scored a pair of touchdowns in the span of seven seconds with less than one minute remaining before halftime. The Panthers converted another fourth-and-short before McGough found Taylor again with a 24-yard touchdown pass. The Niners made a costly error on the ensuing kickoff as FIU recovered at the Charlotte nine yard-line and immediately tacked on seven more with Gardener’s second rushing touchdown of the game.
“It just shot a hole in us,” said Lambert when asked about the end of the first half.
“We thought ‘hey it’s a tight game, a one or two score game, we’re in this,’ and then bang-bang.”
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a couple key completions by McNeill set up a school-record 56-yard field goal by Brewer as the clock expired on the first half. Brewer’s bomb was the longest in C-USA this season and it cut the Charlotte deficit to 34-10 as the two teams headed to the locker room.
The Niners were dominated up front by the Panthers’ defensive line throughout the entire first half. Charlotte found themselves in the red with negative two rushing yards as FIU wreaked havoc with four sacks and nine tackles for loss at halftime.
McNeill played his best half of football this season, completing 13-of-22 passes for 135 yards and the early touchdown pass. However, redshirt freshman Brooks Barden trotted onto the field at quarterback to start the second half and McNeill didn’t play a single snap after the intermission.
The 49ers cut the lead to 17 points early in the third quarter when Charlotte’s third quarterback Matt Johnson found Duke in the flat for a 36-yard touchdown. The Niners had a chance to get within two scores after a defensive stop, but Barden floated a back-breaking pick-six that the panthers returned 58 yards for a 41-17 advantage late in the third.
Charlotte’s redshirt freshman signal caller rebounded nicely from his mistake by accounting for two fourth quarter touchdowns, but it was too little, too late for the 49ers. Duke topped his season total as he reeled in his third touchdown grab of the afternoon on a 15-yard throw from Barden with 13:09 left in the game. Barden capped his up-and-down second half by leading a 16-play, 87-yard drive before scrambling into the end zone from five yards out after a botched handoff attempt.
The 49ers return home next weekend to host the UTSA Roadrunners on Senior Day at Jerry Richardson Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 2 p.m.