The 49ers entered Saturday night’s game as ten-point underdogs against a then one-win Blue Devil foe. They ended the night with a reality check as Duke jumped out to an early 24-0 lead and didn’t look back. Coming into the last weekend of October, the 49ers sat at .500 with two wins over sub-par C-USA schools and two losses in which they didn’t convert on late-game, lead changing opportunities.
Following Will Healy’s first season calling the shots, the 49er faithful had high expectations after the first winning season and bowl appearance in program history. The Bahamas Bowl was an incredible experience for everyone involved, but the gameday performance was lackluster in a blowout loss to Buffalo.
Moving to 2020, this unit has shown flashes of quality football, but are yet to do so with any consistency. Luckily, the 49ers head to Murfreesboro to take on another two-win C-USA program, Middle Tennessee, in a must-win game for the 49ers to stay in contention for the East division crown. Here’s what we learned from the disappointing loss:
After a horrendous 2019 season in the special teams department, the 49ers were off to a relatively good start to the 2020 season, minus some inconsistency from kicker Jonathon Cruz. Since Charles Bankins took over as special teams coordinator, this unit has made tremendous strides in kick and punt coverage, but the talent gap was on display against the Blue Devils last Saturday.
Special teams’ job is to not lose you the game, and they did just that for the 49ers in Durham. Two blocked punts, a 28-yard punt, a missed field goal, and repeatedly giving up essential yardage on poor kickoff returns are just the plays that come to mind. When going against ACC-level competition you need to make plays to flip the field and swing momentum, not shoot yourself in the foot.
Will Healy stressed that they will put the best 11 players on the “Pride” unit, or punt team, from now on. The quality depth required to give your starters a breather is something that is still being built in this program. Charlotte finished up the 2019 recruiting class dead last in C-USA, but have made great strides jumping to third in 2020 and landing the highest-rated recruit in the conference.
The offensive statistics through five games are nearly identical to those from 2019, but with higher conversion percentages on both third and fourth downs in 2020. Losing former offensive coordinator and play-caller, Alex Atkins, to Florida State has been a noticeable loss at the midway point of this season.
Mark Carney stepped into the role and has been calling the plays for the 49ers’ offense that is putting up just over 28 points per game. There has been a ton of motion and pre-snap window dressing, including a two-quarterback look at times with the addition of Dom Shoffner. Creativity has been evident, but the execution doesn’t always back it up. Running backs Aaron McAllister and Tre Harbison have been effective at times, just not as a one-two punch. There has been only one instance in 2020 where both backs have rushed for more than 15 yards in the same game.
The wide receiving core has far too much talent to not utilize more four and five receiver looks. The evolution of Micaleous Elder both as an outside receiver and an anchor in the screen-game has become a staple in this offense, and he’s only a sophomore. Utilizing tempo and getting Reynolds out of the pocket will help take this offense to the next level.
The killer instinct is what made the 2019 unit special. Fighting back from down double digits against North Texas and going for it on 4th and 10 against Marshall are the moments that defined this team.
As Chris Reynolds said at Monday’s press conference, “It’s playoff football right now. I think our guys know what’s at stake.” It’s time to find that sense of urgency and run with it.
4-2-5 SCHEME IMPACT
The 49ers have given up 200+ yards on the ground in all three losses this season and must find a way to limit the damage. While the defense lost a lot of talent from 2019, it also returned quite a bit along with the introduction of various new faces. The 4-2-5 scheme is one that Will Healy is locked in on, and its biggest upside is putting pressure on the passer. That hasn’t happened this year as Charlotte has recorded just four sacks in five games after racking up 36 in 2019.
We knew that Alex Highsmith’s production would be tough to replace as he demanded a double team on almost every play, but the lack of interior disruption has become a major issue.
The 4-2-5 comes with great power, in the ability to disguise coverage with ease while keeping six guys in the box at all times. But it also comes with great responsibility - every player on the defense is responsible for a gap. This allows for a plethora of blitz and stunts that have the potential to disrupt the quarterback and confuse the offensive line, if executed correctly.
Tyler Murray and Ben DeLuca spearhead this unit, with the latter tying Jeff Gemmell as the program-leader in tackles with 306. DeLuca is all over the field and is Charlotte’s highest rated defender with a 82.1 rating according to PFF.
WHERE TO FROM HERE
Will Healy’s team got punched in the mouth, but If I’ve learned anything about this locker room, it’s that they keep fighting. Last season following a fourth-consecutive loss, Victor Tucker told the media that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Five consecutive wins later, they were bowl bound for the first time.
Five years ago against Middle Tennessee, the Blue Raiders scored 42 points in the first quarter and routed Charlotte 73 to 14. Check back to this story after this Saturday’s game and see how it compares.
The 49ers have come a long way in the past five seasons, and this program now finds itself scheduling P5 after P5 program for home-and-home series’. One of these potential statement games are going to end up being a program-changing win, it’s just about Charlotte locking in and remaining composed.
This program isn’t where it wants to be just yet, but with success comes expectation, and those expectations were nonexistent when I began this beat. Staying hot on the recruiting trail and matching Saturday’s product with the weekday’s preparation will keep this team trending up.