The Southern Miss football team has a chance to move within one win of bowl eligibility when it travels to take on Charlotte at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
The Golden Eagles (4-3, 2-1) will enter Jerry Richardson Stadium as a 15-point favorite against a team still in transition to FBS. Charlotte is 2-4 and 0-3 in its first season in Conference USA with four consecutive losses.
Charlotte had an embarrassing start to C-USA play in a 73-14 loss at Middle Tennessee on Sept. 19, but the 49ers have been more competitive since falling flat against the Blue Raiders.
Charlotte's two other C-USA losses were 17-7 to FAU and a 37-34 loss at Old Dominion last week in a game that was decided by an ODU touchdown in the final three minutes.
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Charlotte coach Brad Lambert admits his team's "margin for error is small" in its first season in C-USA.
"We just want to go out and play well every week," Lambert said. "It's about how we play and how we represent our university in a first-class manner and taking care of the little things. That will allow the wins to come. We make a big deal to these guys about how we play and to not look at the scoreboard and that (winning) will take care of itself eventually."
Charlotte has struggled badly in the passing game with three different quarterbacks seeing time between center. Lee McNeill, Matt Johnson and Brooks Barden have combined to complete just 52.4 percent of their passes for 1,076 yards, four touchdowns and a whopping 14 interceptions. Junior Lee McNeill started at quarterback last week and completed 23-of-33 passes for no touchdowns and an interception.
Charlotte's strength on offense comes in the ground game where Kalif Phillips leads the conference in rushing with 125 carries for 703 yards and four touchdowns. The junior stands 5-foot-10, 205 pounds and is coming off a career game of 35 carries for 204 yards and two touchdowns.
While Charlotte is simply trying to show it can hang in C-USA, Southern Miss needs just two more wins for a bowl bid. It's also hoping to maintain its spot atop the west division along with Louisiana Tech (4-3, 2-1) and Rice (3-3, 2-1).
Charlotte will face a USM defense that has shown clear progress over the last three weeks after struggling to slow down opponents at times early in the season. USM has allowed 289.3 yards a game the last three weeks to bring the season average down to 385.7.
"We have (linebackers) Elijah Parker and Brian Anderson who were first-year players last year and now they are a year more mature," Monken said as he rattled off reasons for his defense's improvement. "Then you have guys like (defensive linemen) like (Naim) Mustafaa, (Andrew) Bolton and Darian Yancey who are getting the first year of playing in games here. (Safeties) D'Nerius Antoine and Picasso (Nelson Jr.) are playing at different positions. It's a week-to-week thing, I say it all the time. We just can't forget what got us here and that's working hard, anticipating success and being confident."