Hilltoppers and 49ers set to meet in Charlotte on Sunday for rescheduled matchup
College football on a Sunday morning is something we don't see too often, but that's exactly what's in store this week, as Charlotte hosts WKU for a key Conference USA matchup on Dec. 6. These two teams were originally slated to play on Tuesday, Dec. 1, but COVID-19 issues forced a postponement. However, the two teams didn't have to wait long to find a new date, as the game is back on for Sunday morning. The 2020 college football season has seen some unique scheduling arrangements, and the Hilltoppers-49ers meeting at Noon ET on a day the NFL dominates certainly qualifies. Conference USA's teams have been hit hard by COVID-19 and canceled matchups and the delay from Tuesday to Sunday should allow for both teams to be in good shape from a roster perspective.
Charlotte's 2020 schedule has been altered significantly due to COVID-19, as coach Will Healy's team has played only five games. The 49ers last played on Oct. 31 against Duke, falling 53-19. Charlotte opened with a 35-20 loss to Appalachian State and fell 21-17 to FAU in its second game. The 49ers knocked off North Texas and UTEP to secure its two victories of the year.
WKU has had better luck than Charlotte in playing its 2020 slate. Coach Tyson Helton's squad is 4-6 through 10 contests, with Sunday's matchup the last remaining contest on the schedule. The Hilltoppers entered this season with hopes of contending for the C-USA East Division crown, but a sluggish offense has been too much to overcome. WKU started 1-4 after losing to Louisville, Liberty, Marshall, and UAB and picking up a victory over Middle Tennessee. However, the Hilltoppers have been better in the second half of the slate. WKU has won three out of its last five games, including back-to-back C-USA matchups versus Southern Miss and FIU.
WKU holds a 2-1 series edge over Charlotte. None of the three previous meetings have been close, as the winner has won by at least 16 points.
WKU at Charlotte
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 6 at Noon ET
Spread: Charlotte -1.5
When Charlotte Has the Ball
It's a matchup of strength versus strength when Charlotte has the ball. The 49ers average 28.6 points a contest and rank second in Conference USA-only games with 6.5 yards per snap. This group will have its hands full against a WKU defense that enters this matchup holding teams to just 24.6 points a contest.
Quarterback Chris Reynolds entered 2020 ranked among the top signal-callers in the conference, and while the team has only a five-game sample size, the junior is certainly playing up to that level. He's connected on 58.2 percent of his passes for 1,100 yards and six touchdowns to just two picks so far in 2020. With WKU struggling to get its offense on track, Charlotte can't afford to have turnovers and give the opposing team any short fields. That's a big challenge for the 49ers offense and Reynolds, which faces a secondary ranked second in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense and has allowed just nine passing scores through 10 games. Victor Tucker, Micaleous Elder, Cameron Dollar, and tight end Taylor Thompson provide Reynolds a deep and talented group of playmakers to deploy on the outside.
Charlotte's ground game was effective behind 1,000-yard rusher Benny LeMay last season, but the arrival of Northern Illinois transfer Tre Harbison III to team with Aaron McAllister has kept this group performing at a high level. Harbison III paces the offense with 257 yards, while McAllister has averaged 6.9 yards per rush over 37 attempts. WKU's defensive front should create some challenges for Charlotte's offensive line and rushing attack. The Hilltoppers have generated 58 tackles for a loss and are holding teams to just 4.3 yards per rush. End DeAngelo Malone (11 TFL and six sacks) is capable of wreaking havoc all game against the run or versus the pass.
When WKU Has the Ball
WKU has struggled to find answers on offense this season. The Hilltoppers rank last in Conference USA in scoring (17.0 ppg) and average just 4.4 yards per snap. Additionally, WKU ranks 11th in the league in rushing, and quarterbacks are completing just 56 percent of their throws. This offense also has just six plays of 30 yards or more, exceeded 300 total yards just twice, and scored over 25 points only one time in 2020.
While the offense has had its share of issues this season, Charlotte's defense enters Sunday's matchup giving up 6.5 yards per play and 31.6 points a game. For the Hilltoppers to take advantage of this group, quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome has to continue his mistake-free play under center. The Maryland transfer has connected on 57.4 percent of his throws for 1,205 yards and eight touchdowns to zero picks. He's also added 268 yards and three scores on the ground. Pigrome may not have leading receiver Xavier Lane due to injury, which means more opportunities for Mitchell Tinsley (37 rec.) and tight end Joshua Simon (27). An experienced offensive line is the strength of this team, and there could be opportunities for this group to move the line of scrimmage against a 49ers front ranked 10th in Conference USA against the run. Gaej Walker (516 yards) leads the team on the ground and ran for 70 yards on 21 attempts in last year's matchup.
Charlotte's defense hasn't been a shutdown group this year, but it's worth considering this unit surrendered 53 points against Duke and held all three of its C-USA opponents under 30. The 49ers aren't getting much in the way of sacks (four) and have struggled to get off the field on third downs (ninth in C-USA). Considering WKU's struggles in piecing together drives and on third downs, Charlotte needs to keep Walker and Pigrome in check on the ground and force the Hilltoppers to stay behind the sticks and convert third-and-longs.
The last three meetings have been one-sided on the scoreboard, but a closer matchup should be anticipated this time around. Rust is going to be an x-factor to watch on Sunday. Charlotte hasn't played since Oct. 31, while WKU last took the field on Nov. 21. The 49ers have the edge at quarterback and with offensive firepower, but the Hilltoppers are solid up front on defense and cover among the best in Conference USA in the secondary. Look for WKU's defense to win some battles and keep this game tight well into the fourth quarter. However, Reynolds, Tucker and Harbison shake off the rust late and score on a couple of drives in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
Prediction: Charlotte 27, WKU 20
(Chris Reynolds photo courtesy of Charlotte Athletics)