The Southern Miss football season again veered wildly off track Saturday.
Charlotte, a football program in just its fourth season, stunned the Golden Eagles 38-27 before an announced crowd of 28,347 at Roberts Stadium.
With the loss, the Golden Eagles' hopes of a Conference USA West title are greatly diminished and bowl eligibility is no longer seems a certainty. USM dropped to 5-4 overall and 3-2 in C-USA.
“Not a very good day today,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “Give Charlotte credit, they played a great game, made plays and came out with a W.”
The defeat was made all the worse for USM after senior quarterback Nick Mullens had to leave the game after taking a hard hit. Officials stopped the game when they became concerned that he suffered a concussion.
Mullens returned to the game on the next possession, but he was removed after he took a sack on third down.
Second-string quarterback Parker Adamson filled in well, but he also took a hard hit late in the fourth quarter. He had to be helped off the field following an apparent concussion.
“I think Nick will be fine,” Hopson said. “We lost both our quarterbacks there in the fourth so we’re not real deep there. That’s a tough, tough situation for us to battle from.”
Hopson said that he will have to make a decision on whether to take the redshirt off Keon Howard, a freshman from Laurel.
Redshirt sophomore running back Tez Parks, a former high school quarterback, replaced Adamson and threw an interception on a deep toss on his lone snap behind center.
Mullens completed 19 of 25 passes for 249 yards, two touchdowns and two critical interceptions. Adamson hit 13 of 27 passes for 155 yards and ran four times for 19 yards.
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.”
Charlotte, which improved to 4-5 and 3-2, moved within two wins of bowl eligibility.
USM led 14-7 after one quarter, but Charlotte dominated the second quarter 21-0 to take a 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 1:46 left in the first half.
Four plays into USM's ensuing possession, Charlotte's Daquan Lucas stepped in front of a pass by Mullens and returned the interception 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.
The game was put out of reach for USM when Charlotte's Juwan Foggie blocked Tyler Sarrazin's punt inside the end zone and Ed Rolle recovered for the touchdown. Charlotte led 38-14 with 3:18 left in the third quarter.
The tougher team
Charlotte proved to be the more physical team on both sides of the ball.
Charlotte senior running back Kalif Phillips ran for 72 yards on the team's first play from scrimmage. That big run proved to be the first of many big gainers on the ground for the 49ers.
Charlotte ran the ball 46 times for 303 yards and three touchdowns.
“That was huge for us because I wasn't sure we could run the ball on these guys,” Lambert said of Phillips' big run. “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.”
The Charlotte defense held Southern Miss to just 94 yards rushing on 29 carries. USM entered the game averaging 192 yards rushing. Ito Smith led USM with 15 carries for 69 yards and one touchdown.
Smith has scored at least one touchdown in 14 consecutive games.
Southern Miss faces a difficult road trip to Old Dominion at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.