CHARLOTTE - Southern Miss put on a clinic of efficient football Saturday afternoon, handing Charlotte a 44-10 Conference USA setback on the 49ers' homecoming day.
The Golden Eagles converted 10 of 14 third-down situations in the first three quarters, held 49ers running back Kalif Phillips in check, and shut down Charlotte's passing game.
"The difference was third downs," 49ers coach Brad Lambert said. "They made a lot of theirs, and we didn't. We faced a lot of third-and-longs."
With the win, USM (5-3, 3-1 in Conference USA) moves within one victory of bowl eligibility. Next up, the Golden Eagles host UTEP at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.
"I couldn't be prouder," USM coach Todd Monken said. "We're at five and I can tell you this, we're fired up to come home to try to six. That's the standard of our program, getting bowl eligible every single year."
Special teams play, including a 95-yard kickoff return for a USM touchdown by Jalen Richard and a pair of missed field goals by Charlotte, contributed to the long afternoon for the 49ers
"I was disappointed with our special teams," Lambert said.
Lambert said a key part of the game came on his team's second drive. With the game scoreless, Charlotte (2-5, 0-4) drove from its 34 and had a first-and-goal at the Southern Mississippi 2. But reserve quarterback Matt Johnson was dropped for a 4-yard loss and the 49ers eventually had to settle for a 25-yard Blake Brewer field goal.
Then Charlotte mistakes and another big play by USM receiver Mike Thomas allowed the Golden Eagles (5-3, 3-1) to score all the points they needed.
Thomas caught a short pass from Nick Mullens and appeared to be stopped by a 49ers defender, but Thomas broke free and dashed 69 yards for a Southern Miss touchdown. The Golden Eagles made it 10-3 three minutes later on a 38-yard Stephen Brauchle field goal that was set up by a 13-yard Charlotte punt.
Thomas caught six passes for 105 yards, extending his USM record run to five consecutive games of at least 100 yards receiving.
"He's a good player," Monken said. "He would say he wasn't at his best. He had a couple of drops and technique-wise, he wasn't perfect. Again, he's a good player. (Casey Martin) is a good player. (D.J. Thompson) is a good player. we've got good skill guys and they've been unselfish all year."
Early in the second quarter, with the Golden Eagles at the Charlotte 9, a 49ers defender tipped a Mullens pass. The ball floated in the and was grabbed in the end zone by USM tight end Taylor Marini.
Following the score, USM led 16-3 at the midway point of the second quarter and the rout was on.
The Golden Eagles limited Phillips to 71 yards rushing, stopping his streak of 100-yard-plus games at three. Charlotte's quarterbacks completed only 12 of 30 passes, with three interceptions.
3 who mattered
Kalan Reed: His spectacular one-handed interception of a Lee McNeill pass in the end zone in the second quarter prevented the 49ers from scoring a touchdown when the score was only 16-3.
Nick Mullens: Southern Mississippi's quarterback carved up the 49ers' defense, completing 24 of 38 for 265 yards and four touchdowns.
Jalen Richard: He rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown and returned a second-half kickoff 95 yards for a Southern Mississippi score.
* Lambert said USM's rush was a big reason Charlotte quarterback Lee McNeill completed but 10 of 27 passes for 93 yards. "They kept him off-balance," Lambert said.
* One of many frustrating moments for Charlotte - Kalif Phillips broke a 75-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, but a penalty negated the play.
* The 49ers' special teams weren't so special. The tally: Charlotte kick returners were tackled inside the 10 twice on kickoffs; the 49ers allowed a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown; Blake Brewer missed two of three field goal attempts; and a bad punt set up a Southern Mississippi field goal.
* The Southern Mimss band made the trip to Charlotte, making them the first visiting marching band to appear at a 49ers game.
* USM redshirt freshman running back Delaunte Thornton received his first playing time in the fourth quarter and rushed 11 times for 80 yards.