The Charlotte football program's rise to relevance in Conference USA is a much shorter trip than just about anyone could have expected.
The 49ers thumped Southern Miss, one of the league's traditional powers, 38-27, Saturday at Roberts Stadium for their third victory (all on the road) in the last four games. The 49ers are 4-5 overall, two games shy of bowl eligibility, and 3-2 in C-USA play.
Charlotte coach Brad Lambert and his players celebrated what can easily be labeled the biggest win since the program played its first game in 2013.
“This is huge,” Lambert said with a grin. “This an unbelievable place to come down here and play. There have been a lot of wins out there and a lot of good players on that field. I read that they started playing 100 years ago. They've been doing it at a high level for a long time.
“This is a good program and it's huge for us to come on the road and get this win.”
Southern Miss dropped to 5-4 and 3-2, suffering a major blow to its pursuit of a C-USA West title.
Charlotte was the more physical team Saturday, relying on a powerful ground game. Senior running back Kalif Phillips led the way with 29 carries for 183 yards.
As a team, Charlotte ran 46 times for 303 yards and three touchdowns.
Three who mattered
Phillips: The senior running back proved too much to handle for Southern Miss, breaking off a 72-yard run on the first offensive play for the 49ers.
Daquan Lucas: Following a Charlotte touchdown late in the second quarter, Lucas picked off a Southern Miss pass to set up an 18-yard touchdown pass to T.L. Ford. Lucas finished with four tackles.
Terrance Winchester: The redshirt senior pulled in his first two interceptions of the season. He picked off USM quarterback Nick Mullens in the end zone in the first quarter and had another interception to end USM's final possession of the game.
▪ Southern Miss led 14-7 after one quarter, but Charlotte answered with a dominant second quarter to lead 28-14 at the half. Charlotte pieced together a 12-play, 99-yard drive that finished with a 9-yard touchdown run by Chris Montgomery to grab a 21-14 advantage with 1 minute, 46 seconds left in the first half.
Four plays into Southern Miss’ ensuing possession, Lucas stepped in front of a Nick Mullens pass and returned the ball to the Eagles' 18.
On the next snap, Charlotte quarterback Hasaan Klugh hit T.L. Ford for an 18-yard touchdown toss to push the lead to 28-14 with 35 seconds remaining in the half.
Charlotte charged into the visitor's locker room at halftime while USM left the field to boos.
▪ Charlotte quarterback Hasaan Klugh started the game 1-of-6 for 11 yards before completing a 49-yard pass to Workpeh Kofah with 11:00 left in the first half. He finished strong from there, completing 11 of 24 passes for 127 yards. His 7-yard run gave Charlotte a 7-0 lead at the 10:33 mark of the first quarter. He ran five times for 21 yards.
▪ Charlotte needs two wins to reach bowl eligibility with three games remaining. This upcoming Saturday's home game against Rice seems winnable. Charlotte will host a banged up Middle Tennessee team on Nov. 19 and travels to Texas-San Antonio in the season finale.
▪ Phillips hit the 100-yard mark before the first quarter came to a close. He had six rushes for 107 yards with 2:00 left in the first quarter. Phillips has rushed for 100 yards four times this season, all coming in the last six games.
▪ The Charlotte defense held Southern Miss to just 94 yards rushing on 29 carries. USM entered the game averaging 192 yards rushing.
▪ Mullens left the game for USM midway through the third quarter when officials stopped the game fearing he had a concussion. His replacement, redshirt junior Parker Adamson, also left the game with an apparent concussion late in the fourth quarter. Tez Parks, a running back, took USM's final snap on offense.
▪ The blocked punt by Juwan Foggie with 3:18 left in the third quarter was Charlotte's first since Nov. 15, 2014. The man who made that block two years ago – Foggie. Ed Rolle recovered Saturday's blocked punt for a touchdown.
▪ Saturday's outcome was a stunning development considering how USM dominated the 49ers in Charlotte last season. The Golden Eagles cruised to a 44-10 win last year behind 268 yards and four touchdowns from Mullens.
They said it
“It feels great. It feels like we're on the right path. Charlotte is doing the right things to make us win games and put us in position for bowl games and stuff.” – Phillips on the win.
“That was huge for us because I wasn't sure we could run the ball on these guys. They have a pretty good run defense. To be able to run the ball, that was big. Kalif has done that since he's been here. I'm proud of the O-line. We lost a starter to injury and guys are stepping up.” – Lambert on Phillips and his 72-yard run in the first quarter.
“We'll just keep going one game at a time. We'll take each game like this one. At the end, we'll see how it works out” – Lucas on the possibility of a bowl bid.