For the first time in their football program history, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte) 49ers will be playing in a bowl game. Not only that, but they’re looking to pick up a win. They will face the Buffalo Bulls in the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl which is set for today at 2 p.m. over at the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium.
The 49ers are representing Conference USA while the Bulls play out of the Mid-American Conference (MAC). They both finished with identical 7-5 win-loss records this season.
“We are excited about the opportunity. We are excited to give our seniors an opportunity of playing in the first ever bowl game for the school and set the standard and the expectation for our football team,” Will Healy, head coach of the 49ers said.
A couple of 49ers’ seniors who were present at yesterday’s official press conference were offensive linesman Cam Clark and defensive end Alex Highsmith.
It has been a long season for the 49ers. At one point, they were 2-5 on the season after falling to Western Kentucky, 30-14. They dug deep and found a way to end the season strong with five straight wins that began with a victory against the University of North Texas, to become bowl eligible. They were selected for the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl, and Clark said this destination was always on his list.
“We couldn’t have picked a better destination. We were talking about this since we were freshman. This is really a dream come true,” Clark said. “Our strength coach gave us our summer package before summer in order to say where you are working. They had the logo of every team and at the bottom they had the Conference-USA Championship and the Bahamas Bowl. It has been on my wall since we got it. I just crossed out the Bahamas Bowl right before we left. We accomplished it – we did it. We set the standard for what this program is going to be. This program is going to be doing bigger and better things in the future. It’s cool to be part of the first bowl game in school history.”
Although they are enamored with the beauty of The Bahamas, particularly the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, Healy, Clark and Highsmith all said winning the game today takes priority.
“It would mean the world to us,” Clark said. “That was what we were preparing for. We didn’t just come down here to have fun. We came here to win a game. That is our focus – we are going to put our best foot forward and play our best brand of football.”
Healy said that his team was locked in during the practice session yesterday morning and in the team meeting the night before. He said his guys executed well in the practice session.
Highsmith will be tasked with rushing the passer and limiting the effectiveness of Bulls’ quarterback Kyle Vantrease. He and his defensive teammates will also be tasked with trying to stop running back Jaret Patterson who has been phenomenal for the Bulls this year. In his last two games alone, he ran for 490 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I feel that if we stop him, we will be very successful against them,” Highsmith said. “It’s about fitting our gaps, staying in our gaps, just doing our assignments and playing physical – wrapping up tackles. The running back is pretty good. He is someone that a lot of people miss. We have to be efficient with our tackles.”
Highsmith added that he is hoping to have two to three sacks in this game – a target he said he always sets for himself. The senior knows that the Bulls run the ball a lot.
On the offensive side of the ball, Clark said they will look to be physical.
“We are going to come out and play a physical brand of football. We are going to play our brand of football. We are going to establish the run and when we establish the run it opens up the pass so we’re looking to stay dominant,” Clark said.
The teams were in town from Monday and have enjoyed the amenities that the Atlantis Resort has to offer.
“I don’t know how you can ever top this trip,” Healy said. “To think about it from our perspective – your first ever bowl game and then you have an opportunity to go to The Bahamas. It has been five days at the Atlantis and it has been everything you can hope for and more. We had a blast. We understand that there is still a football game to be played but the whole experience has been amazing.”
The first-year head coach thanked the organizers of the bowl game for the opportunity given to his program to play in the game.
Clark said that the seniors could not have asked for a better bowl destination. Highsmith said he enjoyed seeing the clear water on the beach, but is ready to play.
The Bulls will be going for their first bowl win in school history after losing three previous bowl games including one last year.