Get to know an opponent: Charlotte

The Bulls take on the 49ers in the Bahamas Bowl

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Coming off a 49-7 win over Bowling Green, the Bulls travel to Nassau to take on the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl on Dec. 20.

The 49ers are 7-5 following a 38-22 victory over Old Dominion.

Charlotte went 2-2 in non-conference play, with wins over Gardner-Webb and Massachusetts, and losses to No. 21 Appalachian State and No. 3 Clemson. The 2019 Conference USA Media Preseason Poll projected the 49ers to finish last in the C-USA East division.

The 49ers won five straight games to finish the regular season. Will Healy, in his first season as head coach, is in line to receive consideration for C-USA Coach of the Year, after orchestrating a two-win turnaround.

Buffalo finished the regular season with a 7-5 record after defeating Robert Morris, Temple, Akron, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Toledo and Bowling Green. They lost to Penn State, Liberty, Miami (OH), Ohio and Kent State.

During the BGSU game, sophomore running back Jaret Patterson rushed for a school-record 6 touchdowns and 298 yards. He ranks No. 5 in Division I-A with 1,626 rushing yards. Alongside sophomore Kevin Marks, he has formed one of the most dynamic backfields in the country.

Now, the Bulls are looking for their first-ever bowl win.

Here’s what to expect when they take on the 49ers on ESPN:

COACH: Will Healy, 7-5, first season at Charlotte

LOOKING BACK

The 49ers entered the 2019 season with low expectations.

In 2018, they ranked No. 115 in the nation in total offense. Only five offensive starters returned from the previous year. The pass rush was fairly limited. The new coaching regime cautioned that it could take a year or two before completely shifting to its own system.

After defeating Gardner-Webb in their season opener, the 49ers lost five of their next six games, including games against No. 21 Appalachian State and No. 3 Clemson. Charlotte needed to excel in conference play to have any chance of making a bowl game.

They did.

The 49ers pulled off five straight wins to finish the season, winning two of them by a single score. They did this behind the No. 50 total offense and a renewed pass rush.

Quarterback Chris Reynolds was sidelined with a season-ending injury last year. He returned to complete 62.2% of his passes for 2,366 yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He has fought through a series of obstacles to lead the 49ers into bowl contention.

He developed a rapport with running back Ben LeMay, who was named to the 2019 Doak Walker Award Watch List and the 2019 preseason All-Conference USA team. LeMay leads the team in total yards and touchdowns, and ranks No. 41 in Division I-A for rushing yards, with 1,037.

The new coaching staff inherited a flawed and inexperienced defensive line, but for the most part, they held their ground in 2019. Led by redshirt senior tackle Cameron Clark, this group has been tough against accomplished pass rushers.

On defense, the 49ers have allowed 32.9 points per game, ranking No. 99 in Division I-A.

The unit that brought back seven starters, including senior defensive end Alex Highsmith, who was named to the 2019 Chuck Bednarik Award Watch List. He’s tied for second in the nation with 14.0 sacks. He is one of the most effective pass rushers in the country and a potential pick in April’s NFL Draft.

Despite this, the Niners have actually regressed on defense. They’ve allowed 4.8 points per game more than a season ago, despite returning Highsmith. The 49ers lost all-Conference safety Ben DeLuca to a shoulder injury earlier this year, which hampered their secondary.

LOOKING FORWARD

There are plenty of parallels between Lance Leipold’s Bulls and Healy’s 49ers.

Both teams feature elite running backs. Both teams have quarterbacks who have been forced to prove themselves time and time again. Both teams are going through rebuilding years.

Most impressively, both teams have emerged as sneaky contenders, even in a transition year.

During the regular season, the Bulls earned victories over 8-4 Temple, 8-4 Central Michigan, 6-6 Eastern Michigan and 6-6 Toledo. Meanwhile, the 49ers had a big win over 8-4 Marshall, which put them squarely in contention for a prominent bowl game.

The Bahamas Bowl will be an opportunity for both teams to pitch themselves to future recruits and put a stamp on a successful 2019 campaign.

BOTTOM LINE

The Bulls are going bowling for only the fourth time in program history. In 2019, they have their best opportunity to finally win one. The 49ers are a tough opponent, catching fire toward the end of the season and featuring one of the best running backs and pass rushers in the nation. But the Bulls have an elite running back of their own, and have defeated four bowl-eligible teams this season. Expect them to compete strongly against the 49ers.

Justin Weiss is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at justin.weiss@ubspectrum.com.

JUSTIN WEISS


Justin Weiss is the senior sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or doing both at the same time. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald.