Andy Gustafson

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Andy Gustafson is the Sports Writer for the Niner Times. This is his first year involved with the Times. He is majoring in mass media communications and minoring in journalism. He is from Asheville, North Carolina.

PREVIEW: Charlotte hits the road to play Wake Forest

Andrien White goes up for a dunk. Photo by Chris Crews
Andrien White goes up for a dunk. Photo by Chris Crews

The Charlotte 49ers men’s basketball is headed an hour north of the Queen City to play Wake Forest. The Tuesday night matchup in Winston-Salem will be the eighth all-time matchup between the two schools, with the Deamon Deacons leading the series 5-2 against Charlotte. This is the second of four games against a ‘Power 5’ school. Tip is set for 7 p.m. and fans can catch the game will be televised on ACC Network Extra.

LAST TIME OUT

Charotte is coming off an impressive week, picking up three victories against Appalachian State, James Madison and Oregon State. The game against Oregon State was a big win (69-66 final score) for the program, as it tested the young 49ers down the stretch. Despite not scoring a field goal in a ten-minute span in the second half, Charlotte was able to hold off the Beavers at the free throw line to pick up their first win against the Pac 12 foe.

Jon Davis led the way with 22 points, shooting 12-13 from the charity stripe, and seven assists. Andrien White added 19 points and six rebounds.

The win put Charlotte at 6-2, the best start for the program since the 2013-2014 season.

KEYS FOR CHARLOTTE

On an individual level, Charlotte is going to need Braxton Ogbueze to start knocking down his shots. The senior from Charlotte is third on the team on scoring with 12.4 points, but is only shooting 32 percent (ten percentage points down from last year) from three. With Charlotte playing bigger schools, like Wake Forest and Florida, Ogbueze is going to need to find that shooters touch.

As a team, the 49ers have to limit second-chance opportunities. Unlike last season, Charlotte is not a strong rebounding team. Opponents are grabbing 13 offensive rebounds a game on Charlotte. It hasn’t haunted Charlotte so far this season, but giving teams extra possessions slows Charlotte’s pace and keeps them off the scoreboard. The team has played exceptional defense over the last three games, it would be unfortunate to keep bailing out opponents by giving them second chances.

WAKE FOREST SCOUTING REPORT

The Demon Deacons are looking to bring back the days of Tim Duncan and Chris Paul. Currently at a 6-2 record, Wake Forest is coming off a bounce back victory against Richmond. Wake is undefeated so far this season at home at 3-0.

Wake Forest is led by big man John Collins, who averages a double-double on the year with 17.6 points and 10 rebounds per game. The sophomore is Charlotte biggest threat on the boards, as Collins averages three offensive rebounds a game. Wake Forest also former Charlotte player Keyshawn Woods. The Gastonia native played for the 49ers in 2014, where he led the Conference-USA in three-point shooting at 46 percent. Woods comes off the bench for Wake Forest, but still averages 13 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists a game.

A weakness that Charlotte can exploit is the Demon Deacons are a bit turnover prone. Wake is losing the turnover margin battle this season, only giving up one more turnover than their opponent. Also, they give up nearly seven steals a game. That means defenders like White (1.75 steals per game) and Anthony Vanhook (1.4 steals per game) may have the opportunity to create some chaos and get out in transition.

Najee Garvin wins Conference-USA Freshman of the Week

Another year, another freshman bringing home the honor of Conference-USA Freshman of the Week honors. Najee Garvin, out of Lexington, S.C., brings home the accolade for his production last week in Charlotte’s three victories.

Garvin averaged eight points and four rebounds on the week. Much of his production came off the bench when Charlotte needed that scoring punch. Garvin added ten points and six rebounds against Appalachian State and six points, two rebounds and a block versus James Madison. Then, in the final game of the 49ers homestretch, Garvin did not disappoint against Oregon State. ‘Power 5’ school aside, Garvin, standing at 6-foot-7, was matched up against a seven-footer and held his own, totaling eight points and four rebounds, including three offensive boards. Also worth mentioning, Garvin shot 71 percent from the floor during the week.

Oh yeah, he made a case for the dunk of the year too.

Last season, Jon Davis and Andrien White won Conference-USA Freshman of the Week honors. Both players won the award twice and went on to make the conference All-Freshman team.

The freshman forward is averaging 7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game this season. Garvin averaged 27 points and 11 rebounds during his senior season at Moravian Prep Academy but remained an under-the-radar recruit for much of his prep career. So be it, as Garvin and Quentin Jackson (another true freshman) have come off the bench for Charlotte to be the team’s spark plug.

A wonder what a year can do

Hassan Klugh celebrates after a touchdown. Photo by Ben Coon
Hassan Klugh celebrates after a touchdown. Photo by Ben Coon

What a difference a year can make. As the football season comes to an end, the Charlotte football program has made strides into becoming a legitimate team on the Division I stage.

Take a look back at where the 49ers were at this time last year. Charlotte was coming off a 48-point beatdown at the hands of Kentucky and headed to Rice to conclude their dreaded season. As many know, Charlotte would lose to Rice and conclude their season with a 2-10 record. After beginning the season 2-0, Charlotte lost the final ten games on their schedule. The 49ers were losing 12 seniors to graduation, including a couple of key defenders in Caleb Clayton-Molby and Branden Dozier. Questions at the quarterback position plagued the team all year, as Charlotte started three different signal-callers. There wasn’t much excitement surrounding the football program.

This past offseason was the biggest test for Charlotte. And for coach Brad Lambert, he had a group of seniors that were ready to make the call.

“This (senior) class— we want to give them every opportunity to go out on top,” Lambert said after the spring game. “We’ve got a lot of confidence going into the summer. It’s a tough process to go through to put yourself in a position to be successful in September.”

It was the senior class that set the tone for the upcoming season. Players like Larry Ogunjobi, Kalif Phillips, and Austin Duke  were a part of the program before the inaugural 2013 season. In all, Charlotte had 21 players from the original team, so age wasn’t a concern for the team.

There were murmurs of the possibility of a bowl game for the team. Looking at any team in the nation with 17 returning starters and a bowl game is definitely a goal.

But again, the quarterback position was still in question. Matt Johnson, Charlotte’s all-time passer, transitioned to an H-back role on offense. The 49ers added a pair of new quarterbacks in Kevin Olsen and Hasaan Klugh during the offseason. Olsen, a four-star recruit in high school and transfer from Miami (FL), won the job before the spring game and it appeared Charlotte finally had stability at the helm.

Fast forward to September as Charlotte became Lamar Jackson’s first victim in his Heisman campaign. Then, Kevin Olsen broke out against Elon in the next week, going 19 of 25 with three touchdowns. That would be the peak of Olsen though, as he would be replaced by Klugh, an NC A&T transfer, three games later due to inconsistency. At that point, Charlotte was 1-4.

Since becoming the starter, Klugh has gone 3-4, winning his first start ever against Florida Atlantic, and has scored 15 total touchdowns (eight passing and seven rushing). It appears Klugh, a redshirt sophomore, has a firm grasp as the starting quarterback for Charlotte heading into next season.

The rushing attack carried the 49ers offense again this season. Charlotte improved their rushing yards per game this season, jumping from 163.6 in 2015 to 176.2 this season. Philips did much of the work again concluding his career 907 rushing yards on the season, totaling 4,020 during his time at Charlotte. The drop-off won’t be too steep as Robert Washington will become the new engine, as he rushed for 489 yards and five touchdowns in his freshman season. Add in Klugh, 426 rushing yards, as well and the 49ers rushing attack will be a-ok.

As a whole, the offense improved this season, scoring another touchdown (17.5 to 25.2) and turning the ball over less (2.8 to 1.25) per game. Looking at those numbers, the offense became more efficient.

On the other side of the ball, the defense played exceptionally down the stretch. Charlotte gave up 27.7 points per game in their final seven games, opposed to 44.2 points in the first five. While the team only gave two fewer points per game compared to the 2015 squad, this year’s team generated turnovers. Charlotte ranked first in the Conference USA in interceptions with 16 and forced seven fumbles on the year. In total, Charlotte was able to score 75 points off those turnovers.

Ogunjobi finished his career at Charlotte, starting in all 46 games. The defensive tackle accepted an invitation to play in this year’s Senior Bowl after 13.5 tackles for loss and three sacks this year. Another senior that played well was linebacker Nick Cook, who finished the season as the only one-hundred tackle guy on the roster with 107 total. The 49ers will be able to rotate some new talent on the defensive front.

The 49ers will be able to rotate some new talent on the defensive front. Freshman Ben DeLuca finished third on the team in tackles with 68 to go along with two interceptions and one defensive touchdown and sophomore Ed Rolle was tied for first on the team with three interceptions.

At one point in the season, there were hopes of making a bowl game. While the team finished 4-8, the 49ers did double their win total from the previous season.

“Looking at 2016, it was a good step for us,” concluded Lambert. “We played good games against good teams and we won three in the conference so we just have to continue on this trajectory, keep recruiting hard and I think good things lie ahead for us.”

PREVIEW: Charlotte closes Jerry Richardson versus Middle Tennessee

Workpeh Kofa celebrates with his teammates. Photo by Chris Crews.
Workpeh Kofa celebrates with his teammates. Photo by Chris Crews.

The Charlotte 49ers will close the doors to Jerry Richardson Stadium this Saturday against Middle Tennessee. It may be the most important home game in school history. After a shocking loss to Rice, where Charlotte gave up a 21 point lead, this game can be considered a must-win.

There are many reasons why Charlotte has to beat the Blue Raiders, but none as big as keeping the bowl dreams alive. The 49ers have to win out the rest of their schedule to be eligible for a bowl. Another reason, perhaps, to show the rest of the conference that home-field advantage is a real thing in the Queen City. Charlotte has one win, opposed to their three wins away, at Jerry Richardson Stadium. Lastly, this is the final game for the first football class of Charlotte. Players like Larry Ogunjobi, Kalif Phillips, and Austin Duke don’t want to close their careers with a loss in their final home game.

Last season, Middle Tennessee dominated Charlotte 73-14. Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. For those that can’t make it, the game will be streamed on ESPN3 as well.

START FAST, FINISH STRONG

Read the headline: Charlotte did the first part, but not the last part last week against Rice. It was a tale of two halves as it looked like Charlotte would win their third straight game. The 49ers were up 21 points at one point and shifted into cruise control. That’s where Charlotte screwed up. Rice was able to reel off 22 unanswered points to come back and dim the lights on a bowl berth.

So how does Charlotte play a complete game? Stick to what works best. Charlotte opened the game by running the ball all over the Rice defense, which is why the 49ers held a 21 point lead. After a 27 yard rush from Hasaan Klugh to begin their second half, Charlotte began to stray away from the running game. At one point in the fourth quarter, with a 21-16 lead, Charlotte went three and out on three consecutive incomplete passes. The next drive, Rice marched down the field to score the game-winning touchdown.

The 49ers have three capable runners in Phillips, Klugh, and Robert Washington. When Charlotte runs the ball consistently, it allows for a successful passing attack. Not to mention, running the ball allows the 49ers to have control of possession and the game. For these two remaining games, Charlotte needs to stick with what they know best.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE SCOUTING REPORT

The Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee sit at a 6-4 record on the season, which means they are bowl eligible. But for Middle Tennessee, things have not gone well as of late, as they are currently on a two-game losing streak. Those two teams are UTSA and Marshall, who Charlotte beat earlier in the season.

Middle Tennessee have a talented trio in their offense. Quarterback Brent Stockstill has 27 passing touchdowns and a 150.52 efficiency rating on the year, I’Tavius Mathers has 1190 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns, and Richie James has 1254 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. That means it’s all hands on deck to stop this high powered offense for Charlotte.

Similar to Rice, Middle Tennessee is not a strong defense against the run. The Blue Raiders give up 192 rushing yards a game and 26 rushing touchdowns on the year. The previous two weeks, Middle Tennessee has given up seven rushing touchdowns. Hopefully, for Charlotte, it will go much differently against Middle Tennessee on the ground than it did against Rice. For bowl sake, may Charlotte work the ground and pound.

Charlotte clinches national seed in NCAA Tournament

The seniors gathering together before senior night. Photo by Chris Crews.
The seniors gathering together before senior night. Photo by Chris Crews.

The Charlotte 49ers men’s soccer team made the NCAA tournament, this time as the tenth seed in the nation. The 49ers will have the benefit of a first-round bye and will await the winner of Virginia Tech and ETSU to see who their first opponent will be in the postseason.

The men’s program has been a staple of excellence during the decade, making the College Cup Finals back in 2011 and garnering a national seed in postseason play three of the last four years. With a record of 12-3-2, the 49ers added to their decorated decade as a team and individually.

Charlotte won the Conference USA regular-season title this year and was ranked as high as fifth in the nation at one point. The 49ers have been a juggernaut on both sides of the ball, ranking sixth in the nation with 2.06 goals per game and a 0.51 goals against that ranks them fourth.

Looking at those stats, it’s no surprise why Charlotte had a clean sweep with the conference player awards. Senior Brandt Bronico won the Conference USA Player of the Year with eight goals and five assists. The defense was led by Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, fellow senior Luke Waechter. Another vital piece to the defense was goalkeeper Elliot Panicco, who won C-USA Freshman of the Year. Rounding out the major awards, Kevin Langan won the C-USA Coach of the Year.

“We knew with our body of work this season that we would make the NCAA Tournament,” Langan said. “We had a wonderful regular-season and we are very excited about being in the NCAA Tournament.”

The first match-up of the tournament for Charlotte will come Nov. 20 at Transamerica Field. The 49ers are unbeaten at home this season with a 7-0-1 record in front of Niner Nation. The game is scheduled for 4 p.m.

A look inside the Charlotte football season

Charlotte 49ers football helmet. Photo by Kathleen Cook.
Charlotte 49ers football helmet. Photo by Kathleen Cook.

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.

PREVIEW: Women’s basketball opens season at home against Wisconsin

The women's team greets coach Consuegra during Basketball Madness. Photo by Chris Crews
The women’s team greets coach Consuegra during Basketball Madness. Photo by Chris Crews

Everybody knows how it goes, ladies always go first. The Charlotte Women’s basketball team begin the 2016-2017 season against the Wisconsin Badgers in the first game of the Friday doubleheader.

Coming off a 19-12 season, the 49ers return much of their core. Preseason polls have Charlotte finishing fourth in the Conference USA, exactly where they finished last season. But these 49ers are looking to improve and grab their first 20 win season since 2012.

The women’s team already has game experience this season, dismantling Pfeiffer 94-25 in an exhibition game last week. Now games begin to count toward the record. Tip is set for 5:30 in the new look Halton Arena against Wisconsin.

BACKCOURT STRENGTH

The backbone of this Charlotte team is their group of guards. Seniors Lefty Webster and Ciara Gregory look to end their 49er careers on a high note. Webster has carved out a legacy in the women’s program in three years, ranking 20th all-time in scoring with 1,094 points. Expectations are high for the Virginia native, as she was the only 49er to make the preseason all-conference team this season. But making an all-team is nothing new for Webster, as she has made the second-team C-USA the past two season and the freshman team. For Gregory, the knockdown shooter started and came off the bench for coach Cara Consuegra. Last season, Gregory averaged 10.1 points on 35 percent shooting from three and an outstanding 93 percent from the free throw line.

Add in the two super sophomores in Grace Hunter and Laia Raventós, the Charlotte backcourt is one of the strongest in the conference. Bothe Hunter and Raventós made the C-USA all-freshman team. Hunter’s game is far from grace, as she is a physical guard who isn’t afraid to get her nose dirty. Hunter averaged 11 points and 7.3 rebounds last season. Raventós brings some of her Spanish flair to the game, making it on SportsCenter’s top 10 plays with her no-look, behind-the-back assist against N.C. State a year ago. Raventós 8.8 points and dished out 3.5 assists a game.

INTERIOR PRESECENE 

Charlotte lost two of their best players to graduation last season. Alexis Alexander and Kira Gordon were the stars of the Charlotte frontcourt last season and now coach Consuegra is looking to fill their void. Luckily for Consuegra, the 49ers may have found their replacement.

Nyilah Jamison-Myers, a transfer from Clemson, stands at 6-foot-3-inches. And did she use her height to her advantage against Pfeiffer. Jamison-Myers nearly picked up a double-double, recording 12 points, eight rebounds, and five blocks. The Orangeburg native will look to control the paint with her presence as the guards roam the perimeter.

Jamison-Myers wasn’t the only star in the frontcourt.  Senior Kenya Olley, who went down in conference play with an injury last year, came off the bench against Pfeiffer and put up 17 points in 14 minutes. If Charlotte is able to get scoring production from Jamison-Myers and Olley, it could bode well towards a balanced offense.

WISCONSIN SCOUTING REPORT

The Badgers of Wisconsin are coming off a disappointing 7-22 record from a year ago. But it’s a new season, and last year’s records can be forgotten. Wisconsin has played two exhibition games, winning both games, leading up to the season opener versus Charlotte.

The Badgers are losing their top three scorers from last year. Their top returning scorer is redshirt senior Avyanna Young, who averaged 7.5 points last season. But the Badgers have an impressive freshman in Suzanne Gilreath, who averaged 17.5 points in both exhibition games.

For Charlotte, a key to winning the game is stopping the three-pointer. The Badgers shot 23 of 44 from three point land in their two practice games. Luckily, Charlotte was strong at stopping the three-pointer last season, holding opponents to 31 percent.

Charlotte returns to Jerry Richardson Stadium to host Rice

Senior Nick Cook stares down the offense. Photo by Chris Crews.
Senior Nick Cook stares down the offense. Photo by Chris Crews.

Charlotte football is rolling. The 49ers are making a statement in the Conference USA, defeating Southern Miss in Hattiesburg to earn their second-straight victory.

Unlike their previous two wins, Charlotte beat Southern Miss in convincing fashion, 38-27. Kalif Phillps carried the 49ers, running for a season-high 183 yards, breaking off a 72-yard run in the process. Phillps didn’t find the endzone, but Charlotte managed to rush for three touchdowns against the Golden Eagle defense. Hassan Klugh had another impressive performance, passing and rushing for a touchdown. Now, all of a sudden, Charlotte is beginning to look for real.

“This is an unbelievable place to come down here and play,” head coach Brad Lambert said on the win. “This is a good program and this is huge for us to come in here and get this win.”

Playing away from the Queen City has been sweet to Charlotte, but the 49ers return to Jerry Richardson to play Rice. Charlotte only has one win at home, opposed to their three wins away. Last season, Rice defeated Charlotte 27-7.

Kickoff is set for 2 p.m. on Saturday. It is the first early kickoff of the season for Charlotte.

EMBRACE WHO YOU ARE

The Charlotte running game is taking over. That’s not to discredit the production Klugh has given the Charlotte offense. It’s clear that running the ball has become the identity for the offense. In fact, Charlotte is first in rushing in the C-USA, averaging 198 yards a game.

Phillps is on a hot streak as of late, garnering 20-plus carries and rushing for over 100 yards three of the last four games. If Phillps would have gained one more yard against FIU, then it would be a four-game streak with 100 yards rushing. The senior is on the way to his second 1,000 yard rushing year, sitting at 741 yards so far.

But it’s not only Phillps. True freshman Robert Washington is keeping the engine rolling while Phillps rests. With Phillps injured earlier in the season, Washington had his number called. And the freshman responded. Washington ran for 120 yards against Eastern Michigan and had two touchdowns against Elon. Since then, Washington playing time has been cut, but he remains ready when his number is called. Last week agaisnt Southern Miss, Washington had 94 yards and a touchdown on six carries. That’s what you call making the most of your opportunity.

Not only is the running backs tearing up defenses, but Klugh is an added dimesion in the running game. Klugh has ran for a touchdown in each game he has started. When Klugh isn’t able to move the ball down the field through the air, he still makes defenses honest with his legs.

For Charlotte, stick with what works. Running the ball is the simplest way to move the ball. The passing game has taken over football, but there is nothing wrong with a little ground and pound.

RICE SCOUTING REPORT

The Rice Owls, coached by David Bailiff, sit at 1-8 on the season. Their lone win of the season came against Prairie View A&M. That doesn’t mean Charlotte can take it easy though. While Rice doesn’t excel in any particular area, it’s games like this that can be labeled as a trap.

Rice is led by redshirt senior Tyler Stehling at quarterback, who has 11 touchdowns on the season. But Stehling isn’t the safest with the ball, with six interceptions as well. Also, Rice has Samuel Stewart and two other players with at least three rushing touchdowns, so the Owls have options at running back. But defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi, Charlotte’s best defensive player in program history, has been playing at an extremely high level this season, recently having the best run-stop percentage of any interior defensive lineman in college football.

The good news is that Rice sits dead last in rushing defense in C-USA, giving up 223 yards a game. There could be a field day for Phillps and company at Jerry Richardson Stadium. Also, Rice gives up 40 points a game, a mark the 49ers have yet to reach this season.

This is a winnable game for Charlotte. The 49ers have shown they can do it on the road, winning three in a row, and it’s time to show that they can defend home turf as well. With a win, Charlotte can move within one game from being bowl eligible.

PREVIEW: Charlotte goes on the road to play Southern Miss

Husaan Klugh running around a defender. Photo by Kathleen Cook.
Husaan Klugh running around a defender. Photo by Kathleen Cook.

The bye week has come and gone. Charlotte football is back this week, as the 49ers travel down south to play Southern Miss.

The last time Charlotte played was one of the biggest victories in the football program’s brief history. The 49ers defeated Marshall on the road in a nail-biting 27-24 finish. For the program, it was the second conference victory, the most since joining C-USA, and put Charlotte at .500 in conference play. But there was a bigger meaning to the game. Many players rejoiced with each other in memory of the late Phil Ratliff, former assistant coach and recruiting coordinator that passed away unexpectedly in 2015. Ratliff was a former standout player and coach at Marshall. The game ball was given to his wife, Jenni Ratliff.

With a week to let the Marshall victory to sink in, Charlotte is riding that momentum into the remainder of their schedule. If not for a missed field goal at the end of the FIU game, Charlotte could be on a three-game winning streak.

“I’ve made it a big point to the team that it’s easy to get caught up in doing good,” Brad Lambert said on the team’s recent performance. “You can’t get anywhere until you win the next one. We’re just trying to stay in the moment with our team and attack this day.”

Last season, Charlotte got throttled by the Golden Eagles, losing the game 44-10. Kickoff is set for 3:30 at M.M. Roberts Stadium. Niner Nation can find the game on American Sports Network and WCCB.

Photo by Kathleen Cook.
Photo by Kathleen Cook.

RETURN TO WORK

Coming off a bye week, Charlotte had an extra week to prepare for Southern Miss. The bye week can be tricky, though. Some teams respond negatively coming back from a week off as it could halt any momentum the team had before. For Charlotte, hopefully that is not the case, with the 49ers winning two of their last three games. But coach Lambert believes that team used the week off to their benefit.

“We had a good week, last week, working on our fundamentals and getting started on Southern Miss,” Lambert said. “It’s always a benefit to have the week off, mainly to get guys healthy.”

Speaking of healthy, two of Charlotte’s most experienced players return to the lineup this week. Senior defensive back Terrence Winchester is back after being injured most of the season with a separated shoulder. Winchester was tied with the lead for interceptions in the C-USA last season with four. That is good news, as the defense has gotten an interception in each of their last four games. Senior offensive lineman is back to full health as well, after being limited against Marshall. Covington, one of Charlotte’s top lineman, will look to open more holes for Kalif Phillips to run through, who has ran for 118 on average the last three games.

SOUTHERN MISS SCOUTING REPORT  

The Golden Eagles of Southern Miss sit at 5-3 on the season. The Golden Eagles have prepared themselves for conference play by going against a pair of SEC opponents in LSU and a victory over Kentucky in week one.

Southern Miss is one of the more balanced teams in the conference, ranking fourth in scoring offense (34 points a game) and scoring defense (giving up 28 points a game). Golden Eagles are led by C-USA offensive player of the year Nick Mullens, who has 17 touchdowns on the season. Junior running back Ito Smith evens out the offense, rushing for 114 yards a game and nine touchdowns. The offense as a whole leads the conference in time of possession, as well. The defense gives up least amount of first downs and has the lowest conversion rate on third down against opponents, among C-USA.

But how does Charlotte win? Get on Southern Miss early. The Golden Eagles are outscored 80-62 in the first quarter. With a week off to get healthy and prepare an extra week, the 49ers could find some holes in the Southern Miss defense. Not to mention, the game is in Hattiesburg, which is a plus as Charlotte has played much better on the road this season.

Men’s basketball: Post-season potential

Head Coach Mark Price getting introduced at Basketball Madness. Photo by Pooja Pasupula.
Head Coach Mark Price getting introduced at Basketball Madness. Photo by Pooja Pasupula.

Year two of the Mark Price era is underway.  Optimism surrounds the program this season, opposed to last year where there was nothing but questions.

With a roster built late in the offseason, coach Price led the 49ers to a 14-19 record, but a 9-9 record in conference. Charlotte grabbed a win in the Conference USA tournament and finish their season by winning four 0f their last six games.

Price did what he said he wanted to do during his introduction speech: build a foundation.

“Last year was quite a challenge. Starting from scratch by putting together a new staff and roster together, ” coach Price said. “We were able to finish the season strong, there’s a lot of positive things to look forward to in the upcoming year.”

The 49ers are led by the terrific trio of Braxton Ogbueze, Jon Davis and Andrien White. As a redshirt senior, Ogbueze will be looked as the team leader for a second straight season. The Charlotte native led the 49ers in scoring, averaging 14.5 points a game. Ogbueze excels from distance, making over 100 three-pointers last season, doubling his total from the year prior.

“You always want to go out with a bang,” Ogubueze said. “This is my last season, so I want to continue to bring that winning culture to the club.”

The two sophomores that helped build the foundation, round out the projected starting backcourt. Both Davis and White won Conference-USA freshman of the week honors twice last season and made the all-freshman team. Davis put up 11.7 points and 4.6 assists a game in his first season at the helm. On the other hand, White became a strong three-and-D player, averaging 10.7 points (40 percent from three) and 1.6 steals a game. White injured his foot during the team’s tour to Canada but is expected to be ready for the start of the season.

While last year had the freshmen, this year brings a number of transfers. Incoming transfers Austin Ajukwa, JC Washington, and Hudson Price will bring length to a team that played a lot of small ball last season. Ajukwa, who transferred to Charlotte in December, will be able to play at the conclusion of the fall semester. Once Ajukwa is able to play, he will bring a strong defensive presence on the perimeter, with his 6-foot-7 frame, and an underrated offensive game. Washington is another big body that will compete for minutes in the frontcourt with his effort on the boards. Lastly, Price, standing at 6-foot-7 as well, will bring added shooting to the perimeter.

Not to forget about this year’s new crop of freshmen because they will put numbers up as well. Quentin Jackson, a 6-foot-3 guard from Cary, will provide plenty of bounce off the bench with his explosive athleticism. Jackson was ranked as the seventh best player in North Carolina according to ESPN.com and averaged 20 points his senior season. Then there is Najee Garvin, a 6-foot-7 forward, who is practicing between the leg dunks in the layup line. Garvin flew under the radar as a recruit but averaged 27 points and 11 rebounds during his senior year. The two should light up Halton Arena and give the new video board plenty of highlights.

Then there are the returning role players. Anthony Vanhook plays all the roles for the Charlotte basketball team, a swiss-army knife type of player. Vanhook averaged 7.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and three assists a game, coming off the bench. But what Vanhook does best doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, Price is comfortable running the offense through Vanhook at the high post. Benas Griciunas will return to the team with a bigger role in hopes of replacing Joseph Uchebo, the single-season Conference-USA rebounding record holder. Griciunas is a skilled seven-footer, who will have to be more physical down low for Charlotte to prevent second-chance points for opponents.

What stands out for this year’s squad is the added depth. Charlotte can go with a number of different lineups, with players like Ogubueze, Davis, Jackson and Vanhook being primary ball handlers. Then there are shooters surrounding the playmakers, like White, Ajukwa, Price and Ogbueze, as well. This team can play position-less basketball, a popular trend in today’s NBA game with a number of ball-handlers and shooters on the floor at the same time.

“We feel that we are a good ten or eleven deep. We have a bunch of guys that can play multiple positions, which works well in our system,” Price said. “It will keep our guys fresh during the second half and toward the end of the season. Hopefully, that will be a big key to our success.”

“This year, once the starters come out, there won’t be any dropoffs. Play might pick up actually once the bench comes on,” Davis added on the depth.

The 49ers will face another tough non-conference schedule to prepare for conference play. In a four-game stretch at beginning of December, Charlotte will host Oregon State, then go on the road to Wake Forest, Florida and Maryland. Those four teams went a combined 78-57 last season. Coach Price attributed last season’s difficult non-conference schedule to how well the 49ers played against the Conference USA.

For Charlotte, improvement is expected this season. With much of the core returning, Charlotte should play close or above to .500 ball. Charlotte must begin the season off to a better start, opposed to the 2-8 start from last season, if the goal is to be playing in March.

Charlotte looks to rebound from heartbreak on the road against Marshall

Kalif Phillips runs up the middle through the defense. Photo by Chris Crews.
Kalif Phillips runs up the middle through the defense. Photo by Chris Crews.

Homecoming almost had the perfect ending. Charlotte held the lead for the majority of the game, but it was the fourth quarter that haunted the 49ers. The foot was taken off the gas pedal, which was noted as a key in last week’s preview.

While losing by one point on homecoming is heartbreaking, there are encouraging signs that Charlotte is improving. Hasaan Klugh had another impressive performance, putting up 270 total yards and a touchdown through the air and ground. Larry Ogunjobi was a one-man wrecking force on defense, recording 10 total tackles and matching his school record 4.5 tackles for loss. A questionable call from Brad Lambert to send Blake Brewer out for his first kick of the season on a game-winning attempt emptied Jerry Richardson Stadium of what could have been.

But teams can only dwell in the past for so long, as the 49ers have learned over their two years in FBS football. Charlotte heads to West Virginia, to take on the Thundering Herd of Marshall. Last season, Charlotte lost to Marshall 34-10. Kickoff is set for 5:30, hopefully Mr. McConaughey misses the pre-game festivities.

DEFENSE WIN GAMES, FOR NOW

This is the best stretch Charlotte’s defense has played in, arguably, two years. Charlotte has held opponents to 23 and 27 points in the past two games. Back to back games of holding opponents to less than 30 points hasn’t happened since the beginning of the 2015 season.

The 14 points given up in the fourth quarter last week shouldn’t be attributed to the Charlotte defense. A personal foul on a punt return pushed FIU into Charlotte territory to begin their game-winning drive.

Charlotte stopped what the Golden Tigers do best. Coming into the game, FIU two running backs, Alex Gardner and Anthony Jones, ran for five yards a carry. The 49ers held the FIU running game to 39 yards, the fewest Charlotte has held an FBS opponent too. Also, the defense forced three turnovers, two of which were interceptions and the other being a fumble recovery. Those two pickoffs added to Charlotte’s lead atop the Conference USA’s interception leaderboard this season.

Ogunjobi, along with Nick Cook, has left a strong legacy as two of best defenders in Charlotte’s history. But there’s a new wave of talent of defense, led by Ben DeLuca. The freshman from Orlando has three takeaways, which ties him on the team with the most, and a defensive touchdown on the season. Along with DeLuca, two other freshmen have made a strong impression. AJ McDonald is third on the team in tackles and Tyriq Harris is second on the team in sacks and tackles for loss.

The defense will have to cause havoc to the Marshall passing game if they want to keep the game close for Klugh and the offense. Marshall ranks The Thundering Herd rank sixth in the conference in passing efficiency. Luckily for Charlotte, Marshall also ranks third in interceptions, which could mean addition to their interception lead in the Conference USA.

Nick Cook lining up on defense before the snap. Photo by Chris Crews.
Nick Cook lining up on defense before the snap. Photo by Chris Crews.

MARSHALL SCOUTING REPORT

Marshall is coming off their first conference win of the season against Florida Atlantic. On the season, Marshall sits at 2-4.

The Thundering Herd are a strong offensive team, putting up 34 points a game. As previously mentioned, Marshall likes to throw the ball, led by their Sophmore signal caller Chase Litton. Marshall likes to spread the ball around with three receivers with three or more touchdowns on the season. But a target for the Charlotte secondary to zone in on would be big-bodied Michael Clark, who stands at 6-foot-7-inches. Clark is second in receptions, but he is Marshall’s big-play threat with an average of 20 yards a catch and four touchdowns, both stats rank him first on the team.

While the offense is the strength of the team, the defense is the complete opposite. Marshall’s defense gives up nearly 40 points a game. Last week was the first week for Marshall where they didn’t give up 30 points to the opponent. Kalif Phillips and Klugh should run wild against Marshall, as they give up more than 200 yards a game. Another key for Charlotte is to jump on Marshall before heading into halftime, as the Thundering Herd are being outscored twice over by their opponents in the second quarter.

Another key for Charlotte is to jump on Marshall before heading into halftime, as the Thundering Herd are being outscored twice over by their opponents in the second quarter. This is a good bounce-back game for Charlotte, an opportunity to return to .500 in conference and earn their third win of the season.

Fresh off first conference win, Charlotte returns home to host FIU

Husaan Klugh being lifted up by his teammate after a touchdown. Photo by Pooja Pasupula.
Husaan Klugh being lifted up by his teammate after a touchdown. Photo by Pooja Pasupula.

The Charlotte 49ers return home, crossing off another first in the program’s history. Last week, the 49ers defeated Florida Atlantic to win the first Conference USA game in the short history. Head coach Brad Lambert made the long-awaited quarterback change, giving Hasaan Klugh the nod, and it paid dividends. Klugh showcased his dual-threat ability, putting up 277 total yards and four touchdowns through the air and ground.

But it wasn’t just Klugh that balled out against Florida Atlantic. There was balance to the offense, something that was present in the victory over Elon. Kalif Phillips added another impressive performance to his legacy, gaining 132 yards. Another all-time 49er had success. Austin Duke became the first player to be initiated into the 3,000 receiving yard club with his 111 yards and touchdown game against Owls.

So what it took a year and a half for Charlotte to win their first conference game, there’s a chance the 49ers could make it a second conference win this week against Florida International. Both teams come into Jerry Richardson Stadium with wins in their previous week and each shares identical 2-4 records.  The game is set for 6 p.m., the last late kickoff of the season for Charlotte.

KEEP THE FOOT ON THE GAS

The first three-quarters, Charlotte played some of their best football, scoring all of their 28 points. The fourth quarter though, the 49ers couldn’t find that same magic. In turn, Charlotte almost gave up the lead and lost the game. The first drive in the fourth quarter for the 49ers ended with a Klugh interception, which FAU turned into points. From there, the other two drives in the quarter ended with a punt and a fumble.

If Charlotte wants to progress into a winning program, a complete game must be played. Whether Charlotte is heading into the final quarter with the lead or not, Lambert and company should manage the game exactly how they did in the first three quarters. It’s easy to hand the ball off to Phillips or Robert Washington and run the clock in the fourth, as they did against FAU last week, but that may not be enough to hold off FIU. Both guys have the homerun ability, likewise with Klugh now, but Charlotte should look to add points in the fourth to widen their lead. Luckily for Charlotte this week, FIU is not a strong fourth quarter team, being outscored 36-24.

Uriah Lemay lining up just before the snap. Photo by Chris Crews.
Uriah Lemay lining up just before the snap. Photo by Chris Crews.

FIU SCOUTING REPORT

The Golden Panthers out of Miami are on a roll, winning in their two previous weeks to begin Conference USA play. The backbone to the Panthers is their running game, led by Alex Gardner and Anthony Jones. Both players average over five yards a carry on the year and each player has ripped off a run longer than 30 yards in both of their wins. Similar to Charlotte, FIU has been haunted by inconsistent quarterback play. Junior Alex McGough has shown flashes but comes into the game with more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5). That’s how Charlotte holds FIU on the scoreboard, limit the duo of Gardner and Jones and force McGough to beat you.

PREVIEW: Charlotte returns home to host Old Dominion

Justin Bridges-Thomas, wearing the honorary 49, is orchestrating the defense. Photo by Chris Crews
Justin Bridges-Thomas, wearing the honorary 49, is orchestrating the defense. Photo by Chris Crews

The Charlotte 49ers return to Jerry Richardson Stadium this week after a one-week hiatus from the Queen City. Last week, the 49ers traveled to Philadelphia to play Temple in their final non-conference game on their schedule. Despite an impressive performance by the running game, namely Kaliff Phillips, Charlotte fell to Temple 48-20.

Charlotte opens Conference USA play with a matchup against Old Dominion. Last season, the 49ers fell to the Monarchs in a nail-bitter 37-34 on the road in Norfolk. In fact, Charlotte had a twelve point halftime lead and put up more than 500 total yards of offense on Old Dominion. Fast forward to present day, Old Dominion sits at 2-2 on the season after winning their Conference USA opener against Texas-San Antonio.
Something to remember: Charlotte remains winless in the Conference USA, losing every game in their first season in the conference. The game is scheduled for 6 p.m. kickoff.
PASSING GAME WOES
The Charlotte offense is able to move the ball. On the ground, at least. The trio of Phillips, Robert Washington and Ben LeMay are the center of the offense, averaging 167 rushing yards per game. Both Washington and Phillips have recorded 100-yard games of their own this season. LeMay has shown some spark as well, averaging five yards a carry.
But what has plagued the offense is the lack of consistency in the passing game, something that the Charlotte program has missed since the beginning. Four games into the season and Kevin Olsen hasn’t proved the hype to be real. It’s still early in the season, but for Charlotte to start winning games, there must be more production out of the passing game.
Look at the victory over Elon, Olsen played great, completing 19 of 25 passes and three touchdowns. Another aspect is taking risks downfield. Olsen is averaging mere five yards a pass, which ranks fifth-worst in college football. By opening up the offense and throwing the ball more, that will take pressure off of Charlotte’s rushing attack.
ELIMINATE PENALTIES
There are a lot of aspects during a football game that the players can’t control but penalties do not fall into that category. The 49ers have committed 33 penalties for 334 yards through four games, averaging just over 80 yards of penalties per game.
Against Louisville, the 49ers were outmatched by Lamar Jackson and the Cardinal offense but dug themselves into a major deficit with 13 penalties, worth 118 yards. In their only victory of the season against Elon, Charlotte only committed five penalties all night long for only 48 yards.
SportsCenter and College Gameday took note of the 49ers penalty struggles against Eastern Michigan during their week three loss, featuring them on a segment showing some of the most unfortunate plays of the past week. The 49ers received three personal foul penalties, allowing EMU to kick off from the 20-yard line, a totally bizarre scene in college football.
OLD DOMINION SCOUTING REPORT
 
Old Dominion knows how to put up points. In the Monarchs two victories this season, they have averaged 43.5 points a game. The offensive efficiency comes from a balanced attack between their running and passing games. Senior quarterback David Washington knows how to protect the ball, with eight touchdowns and only one interception on the year. The Monarchs also have a strong running duo in Jeremy Cox and Ray Lawry, who have ran for 100-yard games of their own.
Old Dominion, however, struggles against the run. Music to the legs of the Charlotte running backs. The Monarchs have given up ten rushing touchdowns on the year, which could bode well if Charlotte gets in red zone territory.

The Duke of Charlotte

Austin Duke, a native of the Queen City, did not intend to stay in Charlotte for college. Photo by Leysha Caraballo
Austin Duke, a native of the Queen City, did not intend to stay in Charlotte for college. Photo by Leysha Caraballo

Head 20 minutes down Interstate-485 towards Independence High School and you’ll come to the home of Austin Duke. The only home Duke has known.

The Senior slot receiver for the Charlotte football program is a born and bred Queen City native. Duke’s playing career began when he was 7 years old with the Eastway Lions. But it wasn’t until his senior year of high school that Duke began to grab the attention of college coaches.

Blessed with incredible speed and a solid set of hands, the only thing holding Duke back from major colleges was his size. At 130-pounds, the senior only held offers from N.C. Central and Catawba, two small football schools.

“Being young and naive, I wanted to leave Charlotte,” Duke said. “When you’re from somewhere, you want to get away and see what life has to offer. Originally, I was looking everywhere to go except Charlotte.”

As fate would have it, Duke remained in Charlotte. During his sophomore year, Duke would meet Brad Lambert, a coach at Wake Forest at the time, at a camp and a mutual respect between the two formed. Once Lambert became the first football coach at Charlotte, recruiting Duke became a priority. But the Charlotte native took Lambert’s pitch as a myth.

“Yo you’re lying, Charlotte doesn’t have a football team. I’m from Charlotte and I know that,” Duke remembers telling Lambert. “But when he told me the process, it was a no-brainer, I knew Charlotte was a place that I wanted to be.”

Upon his arrival to University City, Duke became a part of something special before ever hitting the field. Duke, along with 18 other players, formed the first recruiting class in Charlotte football history.

“I didn’t know what to really expect, but I didn’t expect anything less than greatness and success,” Duke said on his first time stepping on campus. “We (inaugural recruiting class) were here when there was no stadium. We didn’t have any games. It was waking up at five in the morning to go lift and workout for a game we didn’t play for another year.”

That process has helped Duke meet those expectations over his four years at Charlotte. The Senior is Charlotte’s all-time leading receiver, owning each of the 49ers single-game, single-season and career records for receptions, yards, and touchdowns.

Now with 30 more pounds to his frame and blonde tips in his hair, rivaling Odell Beckham Jr., Duke is looked upon as a leader of the team.

“He just wants the 49ers to win, he’ll do whatever it takes,” Lambert said.

Certainly, Duke’s legacy at Charlotte speaks for itself on the gridiron. But football isn’t everything for the Charlotte native. In fact, it’s the work Duke puts in for his hometown off the field that makes him more special.

This past summer, while getting ready for his final season, Duke started his own non-profit organization called “FaithByWorks.” While at his girlfriend’s birthday dinner, Duke asked a man to take a picture. The man’s name was Frank and at that moment his life would change, and so would Duke’s.

Photo courtesy of Austin Duke.

“After taking the picture, something told me is there anything I can do for you,” Duke asked Frank. “He told me that he had been homeless for about a month and life hit him hard and he lost his apartment.”

The two exchanged phone numbers and kept in contact over the summer. Once Duke saw the opportunity to help, he didn’t hesitate. He began raising money and the reaction from the community to Duke’s cause was much more than he expected.

“People I haven’t spoken to in five years were donating a hundred dollars, mattresses, food, gift cards,” Duke said. “It felt really good to see the community of Charlotte, especially being from Charlotte, to see how much people love helping others out.”

Yet, with all the donations from the community, Duke continued to have trouble finding a home for Frank. Months go by and all the houses that could have been possible destinations were out of his budget.

A light would appear at the end of the tunnel, though. Duke came in contact with a realtor and explained his mission for Frank. But, again, houses that were options were too expensive. The realtor told Duke that she would call if houses available. To make matters worse, Duke’s phone would break and all contacts were lost.

“Something told me to pick up Frank and physically look around,” Duke said.

Frank told Duke of a woman that he previously worked who owned rental properties. Ironically enough, when the two made it to the realtor’s, Duke realized that it was the same woman he spoke to on the phone the week prior to his phone breaking. Magically enough, a house was available for Frank. Two days later, Frank had a home, furnished with a donated couch and bed.

“I was in tears, after reading what he was doing and seeing the donations because I was so proud,” Bruce Duke, his father said. “This has to be his calling.”

Duke has also partnered with the Kannapolis Police Department as part of their initiative “Cops Target Kids” charity that grants a Christmas shopping spree for less fortunate children in the area.

“Life is so much more than football,” Duke said. “This platform is all about how I can inspire and motivate others to go after their dreams.”