This one - this Charlotte 49ers come-from-behind, 53-51 victory over 24th-ranked Gardner-Webb - this one -- you had to see to believe.
Charlotte (4-2) was hosting its first ranked opponent at Jerry Richardson Stadium -- and the Runnin' Bulldogs (4-2) were enjoying a 21-point lead heading into the 4th quarter.
But from the moment the fourth quarter started, things changed. Dramatically.
As much as the 49ers first-ever game over a month ago followed a storybook script, this was something else.
Unscripted. Unplugged. Un-totally-believable.
“It was just a really wild game,” said 49ers head coach Brad Lambert, whose enjoying his first year as a head coach. “It took years off my life.”
Charlotte's first-year program ran off 29 consecutive points in the 4th quarter to rally past a Gardner-Webb team that had defeated top 15 foes Richmond and Wofford and boasted a defense ranked fifth in the nation.
Along the way they notched characteristic quick-hit touchdowns, came-up with characteristic turnovers, forced a safety, held firm when they needed it most and managed the twists and turns of a fourth quarter fraught with drama.
Still, the game was not actually decided until GWU’s Lucas Beatty’s two-point conversion pass attempt to tie dropped unceremoniously to the turf with 31 seconds left. When sure-handed Mikel Hunter pulled in the ensuing onside-kick, the 49ers had their hard-fought, pull-together, keep-fighting celebration.
“This was the most exciting game of football I’ve ever played,” said quarterback Matt Johnson, who threw for 342 yards and five touchdowns. “It was an amazing day.”
Trailing 45-24, safety Martay Mattox intercepted Beatty’s pass on the first play of the final frame to set the 49ers up at the Gardner-Webb 34. Charlotte’s Matt Johnson converted a fourth and four on a 9-yard pass to Hunter and capped the drive on five-yard strike to CJ Crawford on fourth-and goal. 45-31 with 12:30 to play.
After a defensive stop, Charlotte’s next 12-play drive stalled on Gardner-Webb’s 29, on fourth down, with 7:43 left.
The 49ers defense again held, forcing a three-and-out. The snap on the punt, sailed into the end zone where punter Jordan Day was downed by Alex Petzke for the safety. 45-33 with 5:20 to play.
Charlotte started its next drive on the 50-yard line after Mattox’s 20-yard kick return. Johnson worked the 49ers systematically into Bulldog territory on passes to Austin Duke, Alan Barnwell and Dmarjai Devine. From the 21, he hit Duke again, this time for a leaping catch in the end zone. The rally was alive. 45-40 with 4:27 to play.
Charlotte linebacker Mark Hogan stuffed receiver Deonte Swinton after a short gain. Nico Alcalde registered a sack and after Hogan batted down Beatty’s third-down pass, the Runnin’ Bulldogs were punting again, from their own 13.
With the ball at the GWU 48 and trailing by five, Charlotte was in position to take the lead. And it didn’t take long.
Johnson hit freshman Trent Bostick for a 48-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the drive and the 49ers found themselves in front, 46-45 with 3:15 to play.
“(Offensive coordinator) Coach (Jeff) Mullen tells us all the time to be at your best when your best is needed,” said Bostick. “Matt put it out there and if he puts it out there, then I’m going to go get it.”
On the second play of Gardner-Webb’s next drive, the 49ers Caleb Clayton-Molby forced a fumble that Hogan cradled near midfield.
“In the first three quarters, we had a hard time stopping that offense,” said Mattox of the fourth quarter stops. “We made a lot of plays and we just kept telling the guys to keep working and keep fighting.”
Charlotte was now in position to stretch its lead. And it didn’t take long.
Barnwell fought off tacklers, bouced outside, hit the sideline and found daylight for a 56-yard touchdown run on the first play of the drive, and the 49ers were suddenly ahead 53-45 with 2:19 to play.
“I’ve been waiting for that all year,” Barnwell said of the breakaway TD run that is now the longest in school history.
It was the Runnin’ Bulldogs turn to respond. After having their previous five drives of the quarter stifled in short order, Beatty marched the Bulldogs down the field. A 10-yard pass. A 22-yard pass. An 11-yard pass. A 14-yard pass that landed GWU in the red zone. On third and five from the 10, the 49ers were called for roughing the passer to set GWU up at the 5 with a new set of downs. Juanne Blount scored on a one-yard run to make it 53-51 with 31 seconds left.
But Beatty’s two-point pass attempt under pressure was incomplete and once Charlotte recovered the onside kick, the improbable victory was in hand.
Charlotte’s first-year program had already won games, posted a comeback and beaten a fellow FCS opponent. Now it has the program’s first-ever top 25 victory – one that required a monumental fourth-quarter comeback.
“I was almost in tears,” said Duke, who had two touchdowns on the day. “This was a big statement for our program. Feeling like that is just so surreal and it still hasn’t hit me yet – but the guys went crazy in the locker room.”
“What I admire about this football team is its preparation each week and they’ve done a really nice job preparing Monday through Thursday about what’s coming on Saturday,” Lambert said. “I think that allows them to hang in there and hold on.”
Charlotte (4-2) will host UNC Pembroke (4-0) Saturday at 12 in the 49ers Homecoming Game.