Do-over: Month and a half late, Charlotte gets first shot at in-state ACC foe

The 49ers head to Duke for a nonconference showdown

Quarterback Chase Brice and the Duke offense need to avoid turnovers to get the Blue Devils’ season back on track. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

Let’s try this again.

Earlier this season, Charlotte was ready for a chance to make a statement in the state of North Carolina, playing one of the flagship ACC schools in a nonconference showdown.

It was going to be the 49ers’ first game against one of North Carolina’s Big Four ACC schools and just their third game ever against any ACC school — trips to Louisville in 2016 and Clemson last year resulted in two defeats by a combined 122-24 margin.

The Sept. 19 game at UNC’s Kenan Stadium got called off, however, due to a COVID outbreak on the Charlotte team.

Instead, Charlotte will have its chance to serve notice to one of the state’s big boys this weekend when it travels to Duke for a Halloween night game.

It took a month and a half longer than expected, but Charlotte coach Will Healy is excited that his team will get to “get up into that Raleigh-Durham area” for a big game.

In addition to in-state bragging rights, it will also be a chance for Charlotte to earn its first-ever victory over a Power Five team. The 49ers are 0-5 all-time in their attempts, with all five losses coming by double digits.

While Duke is favored by nearly 10 points, the hurdle for the 49ers is significantly lower than it would have been in mid-September. UNC is currently No. 15 in the nation and has been as high as No. 5.

Duke, meanwhile, is off to a disappointing 1-5 start that has started whispers that coach David Cutcliffe’s seat could be starting to get warm. With Clemson transfer Chase Brice at quarterback and Cutcliffe himself calling the plays, Duke’s offense opened the season with twice as many turnovers as any other Power Five team.

Healy, who considered UNC coach Mack Brown a mentor — the two coaches spent the days before the September game was canceled gushing about each other — is also a fan of Cutcliffe’s.

“He is a guy who does it for the right reasons,” he said. “He created a culture that I want to emulate. He built a brand for a football program at Duke.”

Charlotte, who evened its record at 2-2 with a win over UTEP last week, entered that game as the nation’s leader in time of possession and will attempt to control the ball against the Blue Devils.

“Charlotte’s playing really well,” Cutcliffe said. “Charlotte is a very balanced football team. They’ve played really well in the kicking game. They’re very dangerous offensively. I think (Chris) Reynolds is an outstanding quarterback.”

Reynolds is among the nation’s leaders in yards per completion and attempt, and he has completed a pass of 15 yards or longer to seven different receivers. Reynolds himself caught an 18-yard touchdown on a trick play to become the eighth 49er to catch a downfield pass this season. The explosive offense has allowed Charlotte to score first in every game this season and have a combined 31-7 edge in the first quarter.

The running game is just as dangerous.

“They’ve got (Aaron) McAllister and other backs running the football well,” Cutcliffe said. “The offensive line is playing better and better. There are threats everywhere on offense.”

McAllister is coming off of a two-touchdown day against UTEP and has the longest run (66 yards) and catch (71) for the 49ers this season, not to mention a school-record 97-yard kick return against App State.

Duke’s defense has plenty of talented playmakers, including edge rushers Victor Dimukeje and Chris Rumph II, but the Blue Devils have been vulnerable to explosive plays, especially late in games when the defense appears to wear down. That’s something to look for as the 49ers attempt to control the clock. 

On the other side of the ball, the 49ers again match up well with the Blue Devils’ weakness. Charlotte entered the UTEP game No. 2 in the nation in red zone defense, an area where Duke has struggled all season long.

“Defensively, they’ve had a bit of what we’ve had,” Cutcliffe said. “They’ve had trouble staying healthy. But I love what they do. They’re a very versatile defense, very aggressive defense.”

The Blue Devils will also see a familiar face as former Duke defensive back Antone Williams is starting for the 49ers as a graduate transfer. He has 14 tackles and three pass breakups on the year.

Despite the slow start, Duke is still the more talented team and fresh after a week off, which it likely used to iron out the kinks on offense. Still, the table is set for the 49ers to have their best chance yet at landing that elusive first Power Five win.