The season starts on Saturday, according to Charlotte head coach Will Healy.
While it doesn’t erase the disastrous start to his fourth year at Charlotte, Healy is right. The 49ers (1-4, 0-1 Conference USA) restart conference play with seven games left and must win five to salvage their season and qualify for a bowl game, starting with what’s expected to be a rain-drenched contest against Texas El-Paso with the remnants of Hurricane Ian looming.
“It’s a rallying cry,” Healy said about moving on to conference play. “The mentality is that everybody is playing this Saturday. This is a massive football game — because it’s the next one. It’s a massive game for us. Everybody’s mentality needs to be, ‘I’m playing.’ ”
There had been duscussions about rescheduling or moving Saturday’s game to avoid the weather, but kickoff is still scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday.
“Most of the time what happens in those games is the (team) that is the best up front wins the football game,” Healy said of the forecast. “Turnover battles become massive; special teams and field position become massive. The little things will be that much more important.”
Charlotte played its best half of football of the season last Saturday at South Carolina but ran out of gas in the final 30 minutes, turning a six-point halftime deficit into a 36-point loss. With solely C-USA competition remaining, the 49ers are looking to turn the page.
That starts with getting back in front of their home crowd at Richardson Stadium before enjoying a much-needed bye week.
“For me, it’s my first time this year being able to play in front of our fans,” quarterback Chris Reynolds said. “You’re supposed to win at home, and we’ve had success with that in the past. It’s going to be exciting to try and get back to that this week.”
For Charlotte, this is about playing to its strengths and keeping it simple. Texas El-Paso, while much improved over the past two seasons, is beatable. Charlotte has recorded a takeaway in three consecutive games, boding well against a Miners team that has turned the ball over in four of its five games so far, including seven turnovers against New Mexico two weeks ago.
Texas El-Paso’s offense has struggled to find consistency, moving the ball for 330 yards and scoring just 16.6 points per game. On the other side of the ball, Charlotte’s defense must be disciplined on its run fits, as well as contain wideout Tyrin Smith, who has recorded two 100-yard performances, including eight catches for 183 yards just two weeks ago.
Charlotte’s secondary has struggled in all five games and will be without their best cover corner, Trey Creamer, for the remainder of the season. There is optimism that safety Tank Robinson could return to the lineup for the first time since the first quarter against Maryland in Week 3.
Texas El-Paso has one of the best defensive fronts in C-USA, returning all four starters from a season ago, including defensive end Praise Amaewhule, who recorded 13 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries, 5.5 sacks, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles a season ago.
Reynolds took hit after hit against South Carolina, which blitzed on 62% of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. When under pressure, Reynolds completed just two of his 10 passes for a touchdown and two interceptions. Offensive coordinator Mark Carney must keep tight ends in to block and running backs in the backfield to chip or get Reynolds out of the pocket with designed rollouts.
Regardless of the weather, expect Charlotte to continue to feed the wideout trio of Victor Tucker, Grant DuBose and Elijah Spencer, who have combined for 77 catches, 1,004 yards and 11 touchdowns through five games. Tucker has scored in three consecutive games on passes from three different quarterbacks.
It was made very clear at Tuesday’s press conference that this is a must-win game. If Charlotte is to right the ship that is the 2022 season, it starts on Saturday.
▪ Freshman linebacker Reid Williford started at South Carolina, marking his first collegiate start. He recorded two tackles on 30 snaps and posted the 49ers’ highest run defense grade of 69.
▪ Safety Wayne Jones leads Charlotte’s defense with 38 tackles, a pass deflection and an interception on the season.
▪ Charlotte received $1.5M for last Saturday’s matchup with South Carolina.
▪ Following this game, Charlotte will enter its bye week and will return to action on Oct. 15 against Alabama-Birmingham.
Out: CB Jordan Anderson, CB Trey Creamer, S Marcus Robitaille
Doubtful: CB Valerian Agbaw
Questionable: LB Prince Bemah, RB ChaVon McEachern, S Tank Robinson
Probable: LB Derek Boykins