Football is fun these days for the Charlotte 49ers.
Charlotte beat Southern Miss 20-17 Saturday at Richardson Stadium, improving its record to 4-4, 3-2 in Conference USA. With four games remaining, the 49ers continue to show steady and significant improvement over last season’s one-victory mark. The 49ers, in fact, are two victories away from being bowl eligible.
And it feels good.
“I don’t even like to think about last year; this year feels brand new,” said junior linebacker Jeff Gemmell, who had 10 tackles and a sack against the Golden Eagles (3-4, 2-2). “It’s like back in the high school days, winning games and having fun. The whole atmosphere of this facility — the trainers, the weight-training staff — everyone’s happy.
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“Everyone who works in this building right here. Everyone who works in this building right here wants us to be successful.”
The 49ers have never had a winning season in their five-plus seasons of existence. With four games remaining (including three on the road, beginning next week at Tennessee), that streak has a chance to be broken. The rest of the schedule includes league games at Marshall and Florida Atlantic and a home contest against Florida International.
“I like where we are,” said coach Brad Lambert. “The guys have bought into what we taught them, that’s going one day at a time. It’s all they hear from me and I know they get tired of hearing it and they heard in the locker room after this game. But they believe.”
49ers senior linebacker Juwan Foggie led the way Saturday with two interceptions and now has six for the season, which leads the nation. He returned his first interception 79 yards for a touchdown at the end of the first quarter. His second came midway through the second quarter.
Free safety Ben DeLuca (15 tackles) also had an interception for the 49ers, making for a miserable day for Southern Miss quarterback Jack Abraham, who left the game with an injury in the third quarter.
The 49ers had a 14-0 lead in the first half. Backup quarterback Hasaan Klugh, who saw playing time to give the 49ers a different offensive look from starter Evan Shirreffs, scored on a 5-yard run to open the scoring.
Then Foggie picked off Abraham and ran 79 yards for a touchdown at the end of the first quarter, giving the 49ers their two-touchdown lead.
Freshman Jonathan Cruz made the first of two fields goals — a 40-yarder — early in the third quarter to increase Charlotte’s lead to 17-0.
After Southern Miss (3-4, 2-2) cut the lead to 17-10 on a 38-yard field goal by Parker Shaunfield and a 43-yard pass from freshman back quarterback Tate Whatley to De’Michael Harris, Charlotte put it out of reach when Cruz made a 39-yard field goal with 4 minutes, 19 seconds left.
The Golden Eagles got a late touchdown when a pass into the end zone from Whatley to Tim Jones was tipped by 49ers defenders Nafees Lyon and Marquavis Gibbs. Southern Miss’ Jordan Mitchell grabbed the ball before it hit the ground for a touchdown.
Whatley completed six of eight passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran eight times for a team high of 62 yards.
USM had its bowl chances diminished with the loss, dropping to 3-4 and 2-2 in C-USA play.
“We didn’t execute at a high enough level, but we fought, we fought for 60 minutes and gave ourselves a chance to get back in it,” USM head coach Jay Hopson said. “Tate came in and did some really good things. We got back down 20-17 and we went for an onside kick, and we fought till the end and that’s what I love about our football team, is we fight until the end. Just a lot of missed executions today.”
Three who mattered
Foggie, Charlotte: 49ers senior linebacker had two interceptions, including a 79-yard pick-6. He has six for the season, which leads the nation. He has two returns for a touchdown.
Benny LeMay, Charlotte: 49ers senior running back, stifled in the first half, finished with 81 yards rushing, with a long run of 24 yards.
Abraham, Southern Miss: Golden Eagles quarterback, who left the game in the second half with a head injury, threw three interceptions, but completed 21-of-30 passes for 210 yards.