Charlotte is experiencing one of its best seasons since entering the FBS in 2015. The 49ers now sit at 3-4 overall, already an improvement from last year’s 1-11 season, with the two main components of its success being its defense and run game.
The reason for the 49ers turnaround success on defense is the presence of first-year defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, who coached at Oklahoma State for 10 seasons.
“I went against their DC a number of times, he was at Oklahoma State for a long time,” Offensive Coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “They do a couple different things up front. When you start to look at it, it looks like they are all over the place. The level of moving parts and trying to confuse the offense is high. There’s a couple of different packages he uses. He’s done a really good job in a short amount of time with the same people.”
Charlotte is ranked third in total defense in Conference USA, while Southern Miss is ranked first in the conference. Charlotte is also ranked fifth in stopping teams on third down but allows 27 points per game.
Offensively, Charlotte’s starting quarterback Chris Reynolds is out for the year due to injury. Despite the loss, the 49ers held strong in a 21-13 loss to Middle Tennessee State. Taking Reynolds’ place is Evan Shirreffs, a graduate student transfer from Miami. Shirreffs has a 53% completion percentage rate and has thrown two touchdowns, two interceptions and 327 passing yards after just a game and a half.
“He managed the game decently for Charlotte last week,” Defensive Coordinator Tim Billings said. “They didn’t ask him to do a lot. So to be honest, I don’t have a real good feel for him yet. The one thing they did not do was change the philosophy of the offense. They are going to run their plays out of their set personnel.”
However, the quarterback change has not greatly changed Charlotte’s offensive philosophy, as its offense is built off its running game. Charlotte running back Benny LeMay leads the team in rushing with 664 yards and six touchdowns. The 49ers have a total of 998 yards and 10 touchdowns overall on the season.
“They are really doing a great job of running the football. They’ve got an older offensive line, they are really physical. What’s tough there, is that they make you put a bunch of people in the box to stop the run but then they hit you with the play action pass,” Billings said. “They have a couple of young receivers [that are] a little bit speedier than they have been in the past. They have been doing a real good job of keeping their defense off the field and keeping the other team’s offense off the field and so their time of possession is really good. We just have to stop the run and get them in passing situations”
Despite the 27-17 win and finally having success in the run game against UTSA last Saturday, the biggest area of concentration for Southern Miss will be protecting the football after three turnovers against the Roadrunners.
“Our biggest issue Saturday was ball security. We’re moving the ball. We could have made that game very easy if we don’t turn the ball over,” Dawson said. “You have to care enough to take care of the football. We were very fortunate to win that game because when you turn the ball over three times and they don’t the ball over any, Probably over 90% of the time you lose that game and it does not matter who you are playing. Monroe game, four turnovers, we lose by one. If you turn the ball over that many times you are going to lose the game, period.”