Three things we can take away from the Charlotte 49ers’ disappointing football season

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Glimpses of special and lapses of average. The story of the Charlotte 49ers’ 2021 season.

Charlotte’s season concluded on Saturday night in Norfolk with a 56-34 loss against Old Dominion. While the score didn’t indicate the fight that the 49ers brought in the second half, it did highlight this team’s Achilles’ heel.

The 49ers’ defense allowed seven Monarchs’ touchdowns in the regular-season finale. Charlotte surrendered its highest point total of the season in its most important and final game. The Monarchs weathered the 49ers’ 21 unanswered points and dominated the fourth quarter, ultimately achieving bowl-eligibility for the first time since 2016.

Head coach Will Healy’s team had won every one-possession game it had played this season, resulting in wins over Duke, Middle Tennessee and Rice. After rallying from a 21-point deficit, Charlotte trailed 35-34 with less than 10 minutes to play in Saturday’s contest.

Old Dominion’s pass rush came alive in the final minutes of the game, resulting in three sacks and two forced fumbles, one of which resulted in the game’s final points. It was an emotional end to a roller-coaster season. As high as the 49ers climbed following the first Power Five win and the best start in program history, Charlotte would go on to lose five of its last six, racing back below .500 and raising questions and concerns for the future.

“I fully expected to win the game,” Healy said. “I didn’t want this to be the last week for these guys. I thought there were glimpses in the game where you played dominant football, but we weren’t consistent enough. It’s probably the story of our year.”

Another story of the 49ers’ year was how they responded to adversity. Overcoming four turnovers, 13 penalties and a 21-point deficit is nearly impossible. Charlotte rallied and gave itself a fighting chance to go bowling for the second time in three seasons, but Old Dominion countered at every turn.

How Charlotte responds to what was a disappointing end to the season will be key heading into Healy’s fourth year. With college football’s current landscape, coaches must recruit their own players to return for another season because of the transfer portal.

Nearly 20 seniors have the opportunity to return. The makeup for the 2022 team will be up in the air for quite some time.

Here are three takeaways from the 49ers’ final game of the 2021 season:

PIVOTAL YEAR FOR HEALY

After taking the 49ers to their first bowl game in 2019, Healy’s group has gone 7-11 over the past two seasons, one of which was a full 12-game slate. Charlotte wasn’t the same program in 2020, and nine cancellations and a consistently inconsistent schedule due to the pandemic were the downfalls of their season.

Many expected a bounce back in 2021, and the 49ers faithful got just that with an emotional victory over Duke to start the season, the same team that beat Charlotte 53-19 less than a year before. There are many factors that led to the 49ers’ collapse in the second half of the season, but Healy knows that it starts with him.

“I failed, 5-7 is not acceptable,” Healy said. “I can’t tell these seniors how sorry I am. You wanted it so bad to spoil them and send them on a bowl trip. I talk about student-athlete experience a lot, and when you don’t make that happen, you feel like you failed, much like I did last year.

“It’s disappointing as a head coach when you have a team at the break that’s 4-2 and you don’t find a way to get into a bowl game,” Healy continued. “I believe in the direction of this program. I believe that we’re going to be talking conference championships at this point in a year. I’ve got to do a better job of getting our team ready to be more consistent, and I will.”

Year four is huge for the future of the 36-year-old head coach. It will be his fourth recruiting cycle, and with many of Brad Lambert’s recruits having played their final downs for Charlotte, it’s time to see how far this group has come during Healy’s tenure.

The 49ers have one final season in Conference USA before transitioning to the American Athletic Conference in 2023. The level of competition is only going to improve, highlighting how crucial it is that effective offseason changes are made and implemented.

DEFENSIVE WOES

The lack of an adequate defense was the most glaring factor of the 49ers’ unraveling down the stretch. Charlotte surrendered career-highs to 11 opposing players. Co-defensive coordinators Marcus West and Brandon Cooper’s defense allowed 36.6 points and 492 yards per game in conference play, both ranking 13th in C-USA, just above Florida International — a program that is going through a complete restructuring.

It doesn’t matter how you slice it, Charlotte’s defense has regressed every year under Healy. The 2021 roster saw up to eight newcomer starters on the defensive side of the ball. The transfer portal was kind to Charlotte with seven Division I transfers joining, but the group just never meshed. Anonymous players spoke about the lack of leadership and individualism that consumed the defense, but fifth-year senior Luke Martin shared his thoughts following his final game in green and gold.

“I just want guys to take accountability,” Martin said. “Do your one-eleventh. Your job as a player is to execute. No matter what the call is, the coach’s call is the best call there ever was on that play. It’s our job to execute. Focus on your job and no one else’s job.”

Charlotte’s defensive scheme has been questioned by analysts, former players and even current players. Healy touched on how he would address the defensive woes moving forward.

“There’s no question about it. That’s not acceptable for how we want to play on the defensive side of the ball,” Healy said. “There was a lot, and again, that’s me. I’m the head football coach. I’m in charge of putting the staff in positions to succeed. I think some of it is personnel-driven. We’ve got to get better to compete at the top of this league. We’ve got to look at how we’re teaching it and what schemes we’re running. All of that I’ll take a look at and make the best decisions for our future.”

There are plenty of decisions to be made among the senior class, but safety Davondre “Tank” Robinson, corner Trey Creamer, defensive end Markees Watts and defensive tackle Isaac Hampton have stated their intentions to return for 2022. But changes to the defensive staff seem imminent, which could impact those decisions.

FINDING THEIR IDENTITY

The 49ers’ 2021 team lacked identity. There were spurts of success in all three phases, but Charlotte never put it all together against an FBS opponent. This group fought, there’s no doubt about that.

Trailing by four against Duke with 1:44 to play, Charlotte rallied and won. Trailing by 10 against Rice with under five minutes to play, the 49ers fought back and won their fifth and final game in overtime. Trailing by 21 points against Old Dominion, Charlotte put itself in a position to take its first lead, but just couldn’t get it done.

Healy touched on the team’s identity following the loss against Louisiana Tech in Week 11.

“I think that we play extremely hard, but we haven’t executed extremely well,” Healy said about the 49ers’ identity. “We’re not going to just go out and out-talent everybody. We need to play well and play together. We haven’t done that at times and that’s why you see a (then) .500 record. We’re not consistent enough.”

This group had plenty of surprises with so many new faces, and that was shown as 12 different receivers scored a touchdown, led by newcomers Grant DuBose (six) and Elijah Spencer (six). Following a socially distanced 2020 season, 2021 was somewhat of a reunion. There are more questions than answers for the 49ers in 2022.

Charlotte must figure out who it is and run with it for this group to achieve and surpass its 2019 success. The lapses of average defined Healy’s third year, and the response will shape this program moving forward.

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