Southern Miss

Ito Smith dazzles again as Southern Miss trounces Charlotte in home finale

Southern Miss running back Ito Smith runs for a touchdown against Charlotte during the game at M.M. Roberts Stadium Saturday in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss running back Ito Smith runs for a touchdown against Charlotte during the game at M.M. Roberts Stadium Saturday in Hattiesburg. Special to the Sun Herald

Ito Smith has dazzled fans throughout his Southern Miss career and his final home game at Roberts Stadium proved no different.

The senior from Mobile ran 15 times for 153 yards and three touchdowns, outrunning defensive backs and putting nifty moves on linebackers.

“Ito is Ito,” USM quarterback Kwadra Griggs. “There’s not too much that can be said about Ito Smith.

“I hope to see him in the NFL one day.”

After uncharacteristically struggling on its home field for much of the season with three losses, USM closed out the home slate in style Saturday afternoon. The Golden Eagles rolled to a 66-21 victory over Charlotte, avenging last season’s 38-27 loss to the 49ers in Hattiesburg.

USM, which played Saturday before a crowd of 20,189, scored its most points in a game since beating UAB 70-14 on Nov. 1, 2008, in Hattiesburg.

“From start to finish, I think it was our best game of the season,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “I think we’ve gotten a little bit stronger as the season has gone on.”

Smith’s brightest moment came at the 8:48 mark of the third quarter when he cleared the line of scrimmage with ease, hit the sideline and outran a Charlotte defensive back for an 80-yard touchdown.

It was Smith’s third touchdown of 80 yards or more this season.

“He showed an extra gear on that one down the sideline,” Hopson said. “It looked like he went into supercharge when that guy was about get him. He’s a special player.

“I had a feel that those seniors were really focused today, ready to go. They proved it. They made their last game at ‘The Rock’ a special one. The bunch as a whole, they played lights out.”

Smith improved his career rushing touchdown total to 41, moving him closer to Damion Fletcher’s USM record of 44.

Making his second consecutive start since returning from injury, Griggs had another sharp performance at quarterback. He completed 20 of 27 passes for 221 yards and one touchdown and ran 10 times for 51 yards.

“The guys always have my back,” Griggs said. “When I make a mistake, they’ve got my back. I try to have their back. We try to come together and move the offense better.”

Redshirt senior safety Kelsey Douglas had the best game of his career, returning two interceptions for touchdowns in the first half – one for 52 yards and the other for 48.

The Southern Miss defense, which gave up 303 yards on the ground to the 49ers last year, held the opponent to 238 yards total on Saturday.

Charlotte quarterback Hasaan Klugh struggled, completing just nine of 25 passes for 96 yards and one touchdown.

After struggling a week ago against Rice, the USM defense showed significant improvement.

“They played much better,” Hopson said. “It was obvious. I thought the D-line, linebackers even the secondary was much better. I thought we tackled pretty well out there.”

The Golden Eagles will travel to Marshall for a 1:30 p.m. kickoff in the regular season finale next Saturday.

The Southern Miss players can feel the momentum building headed into the final conference contest.

“The offense, they’ve definitely got that swagger,” Douglas said. “The defense, we’re just trying to keep getting better. I feel like when we’re playing good on both sides of the ball and special teams, it’s scary. I feel like tonight was probably most complete game we’ve played all around.”

Coast note: Long Beach native Trevor Terry made his first career reception in the second half of Saturday’s game. The sophomore transfer from Jones County Junior College pulled in a 6-yard catch in the fourth quarter, helping set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Tez Parks.

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee