49ers drop a heartbreaker on the road

The Charlotte 49ers traveled to Elon, N.C. to take on the Elon Phoenix on Saturday night and found themselves in a low-scoring dogfight in a hostile environment.

Charlotte found themselves at the Elon 22 yard line with 13 seconds left on the clock an no timeouts remaining, trailing 20-13. 49ers quarterback Matt Johnson overthrew his receiver on second down and set up one final shot at the end zone with eight seconds remaining.

Johnson dropped back and scrambled away from pressure before throwing a last-second heave to Corey Nesmith Jr. in the corner of the end zone. Nesmith Jr. reeled in the pass and got one foot down for an apparent game-tying touchdown but penalty flags littered the field as the dust settled.

“I had a good amount of time,” said Johnson when asked about the final play.

“I saw Corey in the end zone and got absolutely railed when I released the ball. I heard our fans cheering after I hit the ground.”

Charlotte tackle Jamal Covington was flagged for a holding penalty and Johnson was penalized for releasing the ball in front of the line of scrimmage, ending the game and dropping the 49ers to 3-1 overall on the season after the heartbreaking defeat.

“It was a game that went down to the very end and we just couldn’t get over the hump,” said Charlotte Head Coach Brad Lambert postgame.

“We told the guys going in that Elon was good. They have a physical team and a fifth year senior at quarterback. We knew it would be a dogfight.”

The 49ers offense struggled through a lethargic first half performance, reminiscent of their season-opening win on the road over the Campbell Camels.

Charlotte started the game on a bizarre note as Johnson dropped back to pass on the second play from scrimmage and ran into running back Kalif Phillips, causing a fumble that Elon recovered at the 49ers 25 yard line.

On the ensuing Phoenix drive, Charlotte linebacker Tyler DeStefani delivered a bone-jarring sack on the Elon quarterback the forced a 50-yard field goal attempt. Elon kicker John Gallagher couldn’t connect on the attempt and the 49ers dodged an early bullet after the offensive miscue.

Charlotte’s offense responded nicely on their second possession of the game, driving the ball 67 yards and delivering the first touchdown of the contest. Johnson hit wide receiver Austin Duke over the middle of the field for a 19-yard scoring pass that put the 49ers on top 7-0 with 10:17 remaining in the opening quarter.

That’s when the 49ers offense stalled. Over the next four drives Charlotte was forced into three consecutive three-and-outs and then Johnson telegraphed a pass right to Elon’s star linebacker Jonathan Spain for his first interception since week one.

Elon tied the game 7-7 early in the second quarter when quarterback Mike Quinn connected with Kierre Brown who found himself wide open in the back of the end zone after a blown coverage from Charlotte cornerback Greg Cunningham Jr. The Phoenix nickel-and-dimed their way down the field as the 49ers conceded the short slant passes throughout the entire first half.

The 49ers put together an impressive drive late in the half as they marched the ball 88 yards down to the one yard line. Elon forced a fourth down at the one and Charlotte decided to hand the ball to Phillips but he was stuffed at the goal line and the Phoenix took over on downs.

The score remained deadlocked at 7-7 as the two teams headed into the locker room. Elon converted seven of their 12 third down attempts in the half and held the ball for 17:48 behind their dink-and-dunk offensive attack that the 49ers allowed to take place.

Phillips couldn’t get going in the half, carrying the ball 14 times for a total of just 33 yards and no touchdowns. The Phoenix made it a point to load the box against the back who scored eight touchdowns in the first three games of the season.

Elon received the opening kickoff of the second half and marched the ball 62 yards down the field but the Charlotte defense held strong and forced the Phoenix to settle for a 24-yard field goal that put them on top 10-7.

The 49ers offense found themselves in an unfamiliar position on the ensuing drive, trailing for the first time all season. Charlotte responded with a nine play, 65-yard drive that stalled inside the red zone. 49ers kicker Blake Brewer drilled a 27-yard field goal to knot the score again at 10-10 midway through the third quarter.

Elon continued to utilize the short passing game on their next possession but the Charlotte defense refused to break deep inside their own territory and forced yet another chip shot field goal. Gallagher nailed his second field goal of the night and put the Phoenix back on top 13-10 with five minutes left in the third quarter.

Johnson threw his second interception of the night on the following drive but back-to-back missed field goals by Gallagher kept the 49ers in contention. The Charlotte defense turned in a gutsy performance throughout the contest despite playing with bad field position on numerous occasions.

“From the first drive of the game we were put in some bad positions,” said Lambert on his defense.

“Our guys on defense have had a good mentality about just put the ball down and let’s play. We don’t really care where it is, it’s our job to stop them. I thought they really kept us in it and forced some field goals and really gave us a chance to win.”

The 49ers managed to tie the game early in the fourth quarter at 13-13 on a 43-yard Brewer field goal. The Charlotte drive looked promising but an untimely holding call forced the 49ers to settle for the field goal attempt.

Elon took the lead for good with 3:57 remaining on the clock. Quinn hit Kierre Brown in the end zone for the second time in the game, this time on third and goal from the three yard line.

Johnson threw his third and final interception of the night with 2:51 left to play, killing the momentum that Charlotte was building on the drive. The 49ers defense forced a three-and-out that set up the final Charlotte drive.

Johnson had his worst game of the season, completing just 19 of 40 passes for 235 yards including the early touchdown and three costly interceptions.

Phillips and Duke became the first two players in Charlotte 49ers history to eclipse 1,000 total yards. Duke finished the night with nine catches for 123 yards and one touchdown grab.

“I would take it all back for a win tonight. That’s all that I wanted,” said Duke when asked about his milestone performance.

“We’ve got to build on this,” said Lambert.

“We’re going to have tough opponents from here on out. We’ve got Charleston Southern next week. We’ve got to learn to make plays in the clutch when the game is on the line.”

The 49ers return home to Jerry Richardson Stadium next Saturday to host the undefeated Charleston Southern Buccaneers. Charlotte will be seeking revenge after dropping a 36-14 decision to the Buccaneers last season.

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