Charlotte blows 21-point lead in loss to Rice

Owls score 22 unanswered points in heartbreaking defeat of 49ers

Charlotte couldn’t have asked for a better start to the game against Rice, or a worse ending.

The 49ers built a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter and appeared to be on their way to recording their fifth win of the season, leaving them one win from bowl eligibility with two to play.

Instead, Rice stormed back to pull out a 22-21 win, dealing Charlotte a devastating home loss.

“The guys enjoy playing here,” Charlotte coach Brad Lambert said. “The crowd was great. They were loud. The game started out fast.”

Running back Kalif Phillips rushed for 65 yards in the first quarter, scoring a 14-yard touchdown to open the scoring.

The 49ers scored another touchdown early in the second quarter, when Hasaan Klugh found Workpeh Kofa on a 4-yard pass. Klugh passed for 94 yards and rushed for another 66 in the game.

When defensive back Terrence Winchester intercepted a Tyler Stehling pass and returned it up the sideline 41 yards for a touchdown and 21-point lead, it appeared the 49ers were one step away from a bowl game.

Instead, things turned on Charlotte.

First, right guard Nate Davis suffered a toe injury and had to leave the game before the half. Charlotte was already missing Jamal Covington, who was sidelined with a back injury.

“That really hurt us,” Lambert said. “We were down two starters there, and we just didn’t block them as well as we could.”

“We’d been on the run with Nate,” Phillips agreed. “Him going down changed the whole outcome.

Phillips managed just 22 more rushing yards the rest of the way, as Charlotte went scoreless over the final 38:47 of the game.

Charlotte also struggled on defense, as the 49ers were unable to stop Stehling. The Owls’ quarterback completed 35 of 49 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 93 yards and two scores.

“It was really difficult to get him on the ground,” Lambert said. “I thought we’d be able to sack him and corral him a little better than we did. I was a little disappointed in that. ... We had him in the backfield and didn't finish him.”

Special teams also abandoned Charlotte. Nate Mullen fumbled a punt that allowed Rice to take over at the 49ers 17, setting up a touchdown.

“On defense, we had the short field. That really hurt us,” Lambert said.

“You’ve got to make plays down the stretch, and our guys need to learn that,” Lambert added. “We didn’t win it on defense down the stretch, and we didn’t help ourselves on offense. There’s no question it hurts. We’ve just got to learn.”

Charlotte’s record stands at 4-6, 3-3 in Conference USA. The 49ers can still make a bowl game, but they’ll need to win the final two games, against Middle Tennessee State and at Texas-San Antonio.

“I feel like now we have two games, and it’s win or go home,” Winchester said.

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