“I can’t believe that just happened,” I muttered, as I all but sprinted from the press box down to the Judy W. Rose Football Center for the post-game press conference.
“This feels like a signature win and is also step one in running the table and becoming bowl eligible. You must win three of the next four to achieve that. What are you saying to the team moving forward?”
That was my only question following the game. I was looking almost a month ahead, and that’s almost always a no-no with reporting, but it just felt like the tide had changed.
As a reporter who spends a ton of time around the players and occasionally the staff, the realization of a fifth straight loss and the Will Healy experiment going wrong were setting in. I sunk down in my chair as Mason Fine found Jyaire Shorter on a 57-yard bomb with 15 seconds remaining in the first half to put the Mean Green up 21-7.
Every reporter handles halftime differently. There are the ones who crack their knuckles and ferociously attack their keyboard, the ones who take another look at the press box’s food selection, or go for two, as one would say, and then there’s the select few who step out to see friends or just simply play on their phone. I can fit into any category on any given Saturday, but as the delicious supply of Chick-Fil-A sandwiches dwindled, I kicked off the arthritis games with a bang and began drafting a not-so-exciting story on the 49ers dooming 2-6 record.
The 49ers had scored 26 points in the second half of their previous four games combined, so it’s safe to say the Queen City faithful weren’t feeling too hot about a second-half rebound.
Boy, were we wrong.
Club Lit had been out of commission for a month, and with Will Healy allowing the paint to remain in its natural habitat, the halftime speech sounded something like this.
“At some point, you have to realize that enough is enough. It’s time to turn it up right now.”
Chris Reynolds got the message, and the college football gods turned his sliders up immediately to the tune of his best collegiate game to date.
The 49ers scored 32 second-half points and Reynolds poured in a combined 432 yards and 4 touchdowns. North Texas was picked to win the C-USA title, while the 49ers were picked to finish dead last. So, yeah. It was hard to contain my inner fan as the Charlotte offense found life.
I don’t have any insight on Seth Littrell’s actual gameplan, but I would assume it looked something like this.
Mason Fine threw for 394 yards and five touchdowns on the day, capitalizing on almost every opportunity the 49ers secondary gave him.
I know you saw the italicized ‘almost’. Almost only counts in ______ and ______. Almost winning doesn’t count in sports, ask White Goodman at Globo Gym.
With less than seven minutes to play, North Texas clung to an 8-point lead and were driving deep into Charlotte territory. Fine tossed what would’ve been his sixth touchdown of the day, but a chop-block penalty negated the score and brought on the field goal unit.
Charlotte’s Marquille Osborne blocked the kick, and at that moment, I vividly remember looking at David Scott from the Charlotte Observer and seeing him raise his eyebrows and crack a smile. That was a sign of life, both literally and metaphorically. I knew the 49ers were going to win, I just didn’t know how.
Charlotte drove 77 yards in less than three minutes and Benny LeMay punched it in for six, but the 2pt. attempt to tie the game fell short with 3:44 remaining. With Charlotte trailing by two and the ball in Mason Fine’s hands, I began telling the reporter sitting to my right that my favorite Thanksgiving dish was apple turnovers.
Mason didn’t turn it over, but he did miss a wide-open target that would’ve iced the game. He did, however, position the Mean Green for a 51-yard field goal which Ethan Mooney connected on, pushing the North Texas lead to 38-33.
One minute and twelve seconds. What can you do in that allotted time? For me, it’s typically the amount of time on the stair stepper before I am out of breath. For Chris Reynolds, it was just another day at the office.
Charlotte took the liberty of doing everything you’re not supposed to do to start the potential game-winning drive. Two runs for less than five yards, a 5-yard completion, an incomplete pass, all topped off with a holding call. Nevertheless, they persisted. Somehow, Reynolds sparked the drive and found Tyler Ringwood for a 37-yard completion to put the 49ers in enemy territory.
At this point, the entire crowd and the majority of the press box were standing. Some had exited to watch from the stands, but there I was, glued to my seat, shaking uncontrollably.
Now, 18 seconds to play, 34-yards away with no timeouts. You need a touchdown to win. What play are you drawing up?
Throw it to Vic seemed about right.
Reynolds dropped back and shuffled to his right to avoid the collapsing pocket, and while shaking off two defenders, launched a prayer into the endzone. Victor Tucker channeled his inner Tim Duncan and boxed out his defender while coming down with what was a season-changing catch. Or as coach Healy termed it, “A catalyst for change.”
Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back, this game didn’t hold incredibly high stakes originally, but for Will Healy & crew, it lit the fire they needed to win 5 straight, emerging from their shallow 2-5 grave to run the table and become bowl eligible for the first time in program history.
Every time I think about this game, I think about how I can illustrate the excitement into words, and the only word I can think of to describe myself, is shook. That is the fastest I have ever moved to a post-game press conference. Someone who wasn’t shocked, of course, was the cool, calm, and collected, Victor Tucker.
“When it’s the fourth quarter, we don’t care about how tall you are, how many stars you had coming out of high school, or how highly recruited you were. We just want to win, and that’s one thing I can say about me and Chris. When we look at each other in the fourth quarter, we only expect to win and make those big plays.”
They did just that.