Southern Miss went into Saturday’s football game with the top-ranked rushing offense in Conference USA.
The Golden Eagles were averaging 192.0 yards per game, with Ito Smith picking up 114.4 per contest and George Payne adding 51.6 more.
But after the Charlotte 49ers whipped Southern Miss 38-27 on Saturday afternoon, almost everybody at M.M. Roberts Stadium would have voted for Charlotte as the best running team.
The 49ers ran 46 times for 303 yards and that was a big story of the game. Big backs Kalif Phillips, a 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior, ran 29 times for 183 yards and Robert Washington, a 5-10, 220-pound freshman, ran six times for 94 yards. They consistently broke through the Golden Eagle line and either dragged or outran USM defenders, especially in the first half.
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“We lost leverage on (Phillips) and he took it for a big run,” Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said about a 72-yarder on Charlotte’s first play from scrimmage that set up the 49ers’ first touchdown.
“He broke some tackles. He ran the ball hard and made some plays.”
Phillips also had gains of 19 and 27 yards, all in the first half.
And Washington did his part, too, with a 58-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter and a 17-yard run in the third quarter.
At halftime, when Southern Miss trailed 28-14, the Eagles had run 14 times for 30 yards, and one of those was a 21-yard carry by Smith. The 49ers? Twenty-three times for 226 yards.
“Some people weren't fitting the gaps and it busted open on us,” said Southern Miss free safety D’Nerius Antoine, who led the team with 7 unassisted tackles and 5 assists. “They ran plays and got into the secondary fast without even being touched. So, it’s just some things we’ve got to fix.”
USM got its act together a bit more in the second half. Smith scored a touchdown for the 14th straight game and a few more holes opened on the front.
Smith finished with 69 yards on 15 carries while Payne and quarterback Parker Adamson, who came in and replaced Nick Mullens after he was tackled hard and played much of the second half, each had 19 yards rushing.
But the damage from the 49ers’ ground game was crucial.
Southern Miss defensive back Picasso Nelson Jr. said that Charlotte’s success was due more to mistakes made by USM.
“(Phillips) is a good player, but if we handle our business we can stop anybody,” Nelson said.
Saturday night, that didn’t happen.