Despite giving up an early touchdown, 16th-ranked James Madison handed the 49ers a 34-7 loss in Charlotte’s first road game of its inaugural season on a rain-soaked evening in Harrisonburg, Va.
The 49ers (2-2) forced a fumble on the opening kickoff and took the ensuing drive 31 yards on two plays to take a quick 7-0 lead at 16th-ranked James Madison (3-1), but the Dukes responded with scores on their next two possessions to build a 20-7 halftime lead.
On the opening kick, Ardy Holmes forced the fumble on the return by JMU’s Coby Branch and Caleb Clayton-Molby came up with the loose ball, giving the 49ers the ball on the JMU 31.
Charlotte red-shirt freshman QB Matt Johnson hit wideout Mikel Hunter for a 23-yard gain on the first play and then scored on an 8-yard run himself at 14:30. His TD, just 30 seconds into the game, is the fastest in school history – beating Mark Hogan’s interception return 46 seconds into the season-opening victory over Campbell.
On Charlotte's next possession, the 49ers drove the ball 64 yards to the JMU one-yard line but couldn't get across for the score on fourth down.
The Dukes, meanwhile, scored on their first 2 offensive possessions, including a 99-yard drive that followed the goal line stand. Dae’Quan Scott put up 104 first quarter rushing yards and scored both TDs. He took one in from nine yards for the first Duke score and completed the 99-yard TD drive when he bounced wide for a 20-yard run to put the Dukes up 14-7.
"We had a chance early down there 4th and one on the one," 49ers head coach Brad Lambert said. "We went for it. If we punch it in there maybe it's a little different game. Their ability to run the ball really hurt us tonight."
After Charlotte’s defense stalled two Dukes’ drives on fourth down, JMU turned a fumble into a quick 37-yard TD strike from Michael Birdsong to Quintin Hunter to push the lead to 20-7 with 6:17 left in the half, which is where it stayed until halftime. In the second half Charlotte forced turnovers on the Dukes' first two possessions to continue to keep the Niners close.
"I was really proud of the guys, how hard they played," Lambert added. "They gave us what they had. I challenged them with that and they responded well. There's a lot of young guys coming up here to a great facility and a one of the great programs in FCS football and we went toe-to-toe with them for a while. That's what I told them after the game. We're getting there."
The Dukes did eventually score 3rd and 4th quarter touchdowns on a 36-yard end-around with 5:45 left in the third and a six-yard rush to push the lead to 34-7. Charlotte meanwhile amassed 100 yards of offense in the second half.
JMU led the 49ers in total offense at the half, 321-131. Dae’Quan Scott finished the half with 134 yards rushing. Johnson led 49ers rushers with 47 yards in the half.
For the game, James Madison had 522 yards of total offense. They rushed for 321 yards, thanks to Scott's 176 yards. Charlotte finished with a season-low 231 yards of offense and converted 3 of 16 third-down attempts.
Johnson finished with 51 yards rushing and became the fifth different 49ers to score a rushing TD. Alan Barnwell added 33 yards on the ground. Johnson hit 13-of-26 passes for 98 yards.
Charlotte forced five turnovers with interceptions from Terrance Winchester and Greg Cunningham Jr and fumbles recoveries by Clayton-Molby, Holmes and Devon Johnson. Charlotte had four turnovers of its own on a day that included both slick surfaces and slick game balls.
"Our whole entire offense and defense played as hard as we possibly could," Johnson said. "We left it on the field. We played a really good football team -- wishing it would have come out a little better for us but we played as hard as we possibly could."
The 49ers will play a second straight road game, at Presbyterian, Saturday, That game will be broadcast on ESPN3.