Charlotte will walk into Roberts Stadium at 2 p.m. Saturday with a record of 1-9, but it’s hard to see how Southern Miss can take this one for granted.
The 49ers stunned USM 38-27 in Hattiesburg last season behind a dominant ground game, rushing 46 times for 303 yards and three touchdowns.
The good news for USM is Kalif Phillips, who ran 29 times for 183 yards last year, has graduated. But USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro doesn’t expect Charlotte to divert much from last year’s game plan.
“We’re going to have to own our gaps, have to play physical,” he said Monday. “We have to step up to the challenge, make sure we come with our big boy pads on Saturday. They’ll try to do the exact same thing as last year I’m sure.”
The USM defense is coming off one of its worst performances of the season in a 43-34 win at Rice, giving up 254 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 49 carries.
“I’m sure when they look at that film that’s something they’ll plan on trying to do again,” Pecoraro said. “Why wouldn’t you?”
Charlotte is again a run-first team with 1,769 yards on the ground compared to 1,376 through the air.
Sophomore running back Bennie Lamay, a powerful back who resembles Phillips at 5-foot-9, 211 pounds, leads the 49ers with 112 carries for 642 yards.
Southern Miss will likely be without its main run stuffer in the middle in the first half. Redshirt senior defensive tackle Draper Riley is expected to sit the first two quarters after being ejected in the second half at Rice last week. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound lineman has 28 tackles this season.
Junior Hasaan Klugh, who started at quarterback against USM last season, is back behind center for the 49ers. He has battled through an inconsistent season, completing just 48.9 percent of his passes for 1,257 yards, eight touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
USM (6-4, 4-2) should have a distinct advantage at the quarterback position with redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs making his second consecutive start after returning from injury. He put in his best passing performance of the season last week against Rice, completing 22 of 31 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns.
He has completed 55.9 percent of his passes for 1,402 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions in seven games – four starts.
“He was spot on (against Rice),” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “The problem we had with Kwadra, when he broke his hand, is that he was in a full hand cast. Just catching the snap, he couldn’t use his left, he could only use his right hand. He got the cast off Sunday, was 100 percent healthy and felt it was the right time to put him back in there and he did a good job Saturday.”
Saturday’s contest will mark the final home game for 23 USM seniors, including running back Ito Smith.
Smith went over the 4,000 career rushing yards last week at Rice to become only the 10th player in FBS history to reach that mark along with 1,000 yards receiving.
“Just a special day. Hopefully we have a big crowd to send these seniors out,” Hopson said. “They’re a bunch of young men that have done a lot of tremendous things for Southern Miss and the football program. They’re a special bunch of kids. It’s a special day and I don’t think they’ll realize how special the day is, playing their last game in The Rock, but they will five to 10 years from now. I would love to a great Eagle Walk and when we make that turn around the corner to see a big crowd underneath M.M. Roberts supporting these guys because they’ve done a great job here. We just want to show our appreciation for everything they’ve done.”
Who: Charlotte vs. Southern Miss
When: 2 p.m., Saturday
Where: Roberts Stadium, Hattiesburg
Radio: WBUV 104.9-FM