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Can Charlotte Upend Southern Miss? Game Preview

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Charlotte is 2-2 in Conference USA play and is coming off of a 27-24 road win over perennial C-USA power Marshall. Can the 49ers win on the road in Hattiesburg?

NCAA Football: Marshall at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The teams: Southern Mississippi 5-3 (3-1), Charlotte 3-5 (2-2)

Location: M.M. Roberts Stadium (“the Rock”), Hattiesburg, MS

Game time: 2:30pm CT

Television: American Sports Network

Last game: Southern Mississippi 24, Marshall 14; Charlotte 27, Marshall 24

All time series: Southern Miss 1-0 (44-10) 2015

Odds: Southern Miss -19.5 (o/u 63)


The University of North Carolina-Charlotte (UNCC) has only been playing football since 2013, except for a brief flirtation with the sport in the 1940's. Whether looking at the 1940’s or present day Charlotte has never had a winning season.

The 49ers were 5-6 in both seasons as an FCS independent and finished 2-10 last season, their first year in the FBS.

Charlotte is so new and so young that it has only had one football coach---ever.

You see back in the 40's, the Charlotte teams were ad-hoc, un-coached, short-lived, and unsuccessful. Not until 2013 did the Board of Trustees decide to press forward with an aggressive and well-planned football program that surprised many when it lured Brad Lambert away from Wake Forest with a six-year deal at $250,000 annually.

Lambert explained why:

“The ability to lay the foundation with integrity and character is what really enticed me ultimately. You don’t leave a great job that you have (Wake Forest) just to take another job. The attractive thing here was the plan that was in place.”

That plan included new facilities which he helped plan, an aggressive and visionary administration, and an athletic director in Judy Rose who knew that Lambert was a winner even though he had never been the head coach of a FBS team.

In this second year of big-boy ball, the 49ers are 3-5 over all and have a remarkable 2-2 record in Conference USA play.

This Saturday, the 49ers travel to play Southern Mississippi, a team that stands 5-3 overall and 3-1 in the conference. The Golden Eagles have a great deal of talent and offensive firepower, but inconsistent play and turnovers have made USM's path to another C-USA title game more difficult than expected.

Comparing common opponents

The teams have played one common opponent. Two weeks ago Charlotte downed Marshall 27-24 while last week Southern Miss defeated Marshall 24-14.

While the scores are comparable, the bases for achieving those scores are not.

Southern Mississippi running back Ito Smith rampaged for 140 yards against Marshall while Charlotte's entire team only managed 88 yards on the ground. Somewhat of an odd statistic when one considers that Charlotte is in the upper-half of the nation's running attacks. That was against Marshall's awful rush defense that is nearly the worst in the nation.

Although the final scores are similar the difference in rushing effectiveness is stark and meaningful.

Advantage: Southern Mississippi

Last year's game

Last year, all-time Southern Miss passing leader Nick Mullens threw four touchdown passes against Charlotte in a 44-10 Golden Eagle win. Jalen Richard, now with the Oakland Raiders, rushed for 114 yards at nearly nine yards per attempt. By the early third quarter Southern Miss held a 30-point lead.

In all, the Golden Eagles amassed 480 yards of total offense while Charlotte managed just 257.

Notwithstanding our discussion of turnovers (below), it seems unlikely that Charlotte has reversed those shortcomings in just one year, although it must be noted that the 49ers have made great strides that have been noticed by national analysts.

Advantage (moderate): Southern Mississippi

Comparing Southern Miss offense to Charlotte defense

Based on last year's game and this year's performances to-date I project:

* The Southern Mississippi offense will produce 464 yards

* The Golden Eagles will accumulate at least 24 first downs

* Running back Ito Smith and left wide receiver Allenzae Staggers will each have one touchdown for more than 30 yards

Advantage (significant): Southern Mississippi

Comparing Charlotte's offense vs Southern Miss defense

It is remarkable that in just the second year of FBS football, Charlotte is already among the top-half of all rushing teams in college football.

Much of the reason why the 49ers have escalated the rushing rankings is because of the emergence of sophomore dual-threat quarterback Hasaan Klugh.

Although the Golden Eagles boast a run defense that has been solid, they haven't seen the likes of Klugh who is just now coming into his own. In the past three games, the 6'3”, 185 pound star has begun to utilize his athletic running ability to the tune of 787 yards, over five yards per carry, and 12 touchdowns, should his current pace be applied to the entire season.

Charlotte also has an effective running back in 5'10”, 221 pound bowling ball Kalif Phillips who is likely to become Charlotte's first 1000-yard rusher. Phillips is also an effective receiver out of the backfield averaging nearly 12 yards per catch. With Southern Miss bringing pressure, Phillips might become quite a common and effective target.

Based on the factors above, I project

* Southern Miss will not solve the Klugh factor until the second half

* Charlotte's offense will be more successful than in the 2015 game

* The 49ers will produce 322 yards of total offense

* UNCC will leave two touchdowns on the field because it could not convert

do-able third downs.

Even with some shortcomings, Charlotte will move the ball better than last year.

Advantage (slight): Charlotte

The case for turnovers

I have certainly been among the many analysts to harangue Southern Miss for its number of turnovers in 2016. Indeed, the Golden Eagles rank 122nd nationally in turnover margin.

However, my experience along with a wet finger-in-the-wind are both telling me that bouts with those bothersome bloopers are over . . . for the most part.

Nick Mullens has settled down and is playing like the record-setting all-Conference USA quarterback that we expected. It is clear that offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson made good on his promise after the Troy loss to put Mullens “into better situations”.

Meanwhile, Charlotte is ranked in the top-half of FBS teams in turnover margin.

Although I don't believe turnovers will reverse the outcome, I am going to give a very slight nod to the 49ers.

Advantage (slight): Charlotte

Injuries

Charlotte is replacing offensive lineman Eugene German, who broke his arm against Marshall and is out for the season.

Jamal Covington whose knee injury continues to have him listed as “questionable” by Don Best, told reporters on Tuesday that he expects to play. He won the praise of reporters with his commitment to excellence.

“Something I hold myself to, and try to hold my teammates to as well, is being my absolute best and giving everything you have in everything you do . . . I want my life to be a living testimony that I gave everything I had in everything I do.”

Of great concern is the status of Terrance Winchester, another freshman and a local high school product. Charlotte's sports guide recognizes Winchester as “The 49ers all-time leader in career takeaways (9) and interceptions (7)”. Yes--- all time leader. However, keep in mind that “all time” in Charlotte only goes back to 2013.

Also missing will be linebacker Jordan Starnes. With four total tackles in seven games, UNCC might actually gain through subtraction.

Southern Miss has been extraordinarily injury-free this season and it now has Draper Riley’s 305 bulk back in the middle of the Golden Eagle defensive line.

All starters are expected to play this Saturday although receiver D. J. Thomspon may see less action that usual.

Advantage (slight): Southern Mississippi

Coaches comments

UNCC coach Brad Lambert is excited about the future of Charlotte football. The former all-Big Eight defensive back understands how difficult it will be to travel to Hattiesburg and get a win from one of the league's top teams.

“We have a tough task ahead of us going to another stadium where, like at Marshall, Southern Miss won a lot of games. They've got a great tradition. They're coached extremely well. They beat up on us pretty good last year here. The quarterback (Mullens) is back. Smith, the running back, I think is like the guy at Temple. He's a fine player.”

Lambert also believes if his team can beat Marshall, they have a chance against Southern Mississippi as well.

“Our guys are excited about this opportunity. We got a shot in the arm winning our last game on the road our last game out.”

He also believes that not having a game last week will help the 49ers on Saturday.

When asked why his team should be expected to do better this year than the 44-10 loss last season, he replied, “We're older. Our guys been through the league now and we've played Southern Miss before.”

Southern Mississippi coach Jay Hopson was pleased with his win last week over Marshall but clearly not happy that the Golden Eagles pushed the ball all over the field but not often enough into the end zone.

He was also unhappy with the Golden Eagles' kickoff return game, although no one expected much from USM’s special teams this season. Nonetheless, Hopson believes the potential is there and it needs to begin producing.

“We have that big play ability, but we have to dial it in. That is something that is going to help us tremendously if we can get better at that unit.

In discussing the importance of Saturday's game against Charlotte, Hopson said, “We're down to a four game playoff. That's the reality of where we are as a football team. It's the next one up and it's the biggest one."

The prediction

Expect a strong battle on the ground from Charlotte since it seems unlikely the 49ers' passing attack will muster much yardage. Statistics say that UNCC has a decent ground game. With a little digging, it can be discovered that a big part of that has happened in the past three games as Klugh has come into his own as a dual-threat quarterback.

The Golden Eagles are aware of Klugh's prowess. The question is: can Southern Miss stop it? The Golden Eagles have not faced a quarterback with the athleticism and decision-making that Klugh demonstrated in October.

Southern Miss will have no trouble moving the ball through the air or on the ground. I'm not fully convinced that Nick Mullens’ completions will all be to the boys in black, but it would be nice because Mullens has great character and a bright future. If he had two intercepted, it would be twice what I would expect. Even so, it would take more than two to change the outcome of this game.

AC Index (aciventura.com) says, “No one stops Ito Smith”, and sides heavily in favor of Southern Mississippi. I agree with the Index that USM is a heavy favorite and by an even greater margin:

Southern Mississippi 43, Charlotte 14