A victory against Charlotte would clinch FAU’s bowl-eligibility, while a loss would put a premature end to Year 2 of the Lane Kiffin era.
Before the season many penciled this game in as a resounding win for the Owls. But Charlotte has outperformed expectations coming off an abysmal one-win 2017 campaign, winning three of its seven Conference USA games this year.
The 49ers are sitting at 4-7, narrowly losing to C-USA east-leading FIU this past weekend. A win against the Panthers would have kept their bowl hopes alive; Charlotte has yet to play in a bowl game since joining the conference in 2015.
But despite taking what looked like a step forward this season, Charlotte decided the step wasn’t quite big enough. Coach Brad Lambert will not be retained after this season, Charlotte announced after his team’s loss to FIU. This week’s match-up with FAU being his last at the helm.
The 49ers know they won’t make the postseason but will be looking to do the next best thing in Lambert’s final game: keep the defending-conference champions out with them.
The Owls are matching up with a Charlotte team that has nothing to lose this Saturday. But if they hope to extend their season, FAU needs to make the visiting 49ers do exactly that.
THE FILE: FAU (5-6, 3-4) CHARLOTTE (4-7, 3-4)
Charlotte plays a slow-paced physical brand of football, ranking No. 3 in C-USA with 476 rushing attempts and owning the third highest average time of possession (35:00) nationally. Its offensive line has struggled this season, allowing 35 sacks (second to last in C-USA) and generating only 3.4 yards per carry. The 49ers’ run-first identity gets them in third-and-manageable situations frequently and that’s showing up in the box score. They are converting 42.2 percent of their third down attempts – third in C-USA.
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
32 Benny LeMay, Jr, RB: The lifeblood to an otherwise lifeless Charlotte offense, LeMay has been nothing short of phenomenal this season. He is one of only two thousand-yard rushers in Conference USA (FAU’s Devin Singletary), averaging 5.1 per carry en route to his 1055 yards through 11 games. The junior running back scored four of his 10 touchdowns on the year this past week against FIU.
9 Victor Tucker, R-Fr, WR: The Miami-native Tucker emerged as a go-to target in his first collegiate season, pacing his team in both receptions (51) and touchdowns (2). His 685 receiving yards are the second most in C-USA and more than double Charlotte’s next leading receiver (321).
7 Hasaan Klugh, R-Sr, QB: Charlotte’s starter over the past two seasons, Klugh was relegated to third-string duties in 2018 with the arrivals of freshman Chris Reynolds and Miami graduate transfer Evan Shirreffs. His time on the bench wasn’t permanent, as a Week 7 season-ending injury to then-starter Reynolds and inconsistent play from Shirreffs opened the door for Klugh to make his first start of the season this past week against FIU. He took the opportunity and ran with it – literally and figuratively – gaining 48 yards on the ground and completing 16 of his 22 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown.
If there’s any team in the conference armed to stymie the nearly unstoppable FAU rushing attack, it’s Charlotte. The 49ers are one of only seven teams in the nation ceding less than 100 rushing yards a game (98.3), holding opposing ball carriers to 3.4 yards per carry. They are, however, exploitable through the air. The 49ers are allowing the fifth-highest completion percentage in the country (66.8) and the 8.8 yards averaged on those completions is the third worst rate in C-USA.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
28 Ben DeLuca, Jr, S: While DeLuca plays on the back end he’s at his best when attacking the line of scrimmage. DeLuca has a team-high 83 tackles on the year, tying for 11th in C-USA. The junior also has an interception and three pass breakups to his name.
5 Alex Highsmith, R-Jr, DE: A former walk-on, Highsmith has gone from unknown to unblockable. He is tied for the Charlotte-lead in sacks (3) and has notched 13 tackles for loss on the year – fifth in C-USA. Highsmith’s 50 total tackles are the fourth most on his team.
16 Juwan Foggie, R-Sr, LB: Foggie started his collegiate career as a wide receiver and when he drops back in coverage you see why. He is second in the nation in interceptions (6) and has returned those picks for an FBS-high 186 yards. The epitome of the athletic modern-day linebacker, Foggie is fourth on his team with 61 tackles and has added 3.5 tackles for loss.