HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - University of Southern Miss football coach Jay Hopson always has been a "this-game is-our-most-important-game-because-it's-our-next-game" kind of guy.
But, while Hopson and staff will be focusing the Golden Eagles' attention on Saturday's Roberts Stadium guest, Charlotte University, the game comes with a deeper significance.
A victory over the 49ers (3-5, 2-2 Conference USA) would allow the Golden Eagles (5-3, 3-1) to qualify for a bowl game for the second, consecutive season and become the fourth conference team to reach the six-win plateau.
"I always say the biggest game of the season is the next week," Hopson said. "In football, we count our poker chips up at the end, but this is a big football game. Our kids understand it's a big football game. That's a little plus on the side of this game, but I said it last week that we're in a five-game playoff, and now we're down to a four-game playoff. That's the reality of where we are as a football team. It's the next one up, and it's the biggest one."
USM snapped a two-game losing streak with a 24-14 victory Saturday over recent nemesis Marshall.
Charlotte, which will be coming off an open week, has won two of its last three games, including a 27-24 victory over Marshall on Oct. 22.
"They're a well-coached football team," Hopson said. "They went to Huntington (W. Va.) and beat Marshall up there, so we know have an outstanding football team coming to town. We know we've got to be ready."
The 49ers are allowing 36.9 points a game, but those numbers are skewed by a non-conference schedule that included losses to Louisville (70-14), Temple (48-20) and Eastern Michigan (37-19).
Charlotte opened C-USA play with a 52-17 loss to visiting Old Dominion, but has not allowed more than 27 points in any of its last three games against Florida Atlantic, Florida International and Marshall.
On offense, the 49ers have failed to score more than 28 points against Football Bowl Subdivision opposition.
Running back Kalif Phillips has been the workhouse of Charlotte's ground game, rushing for 556 yards and three touchdowns on 117 carries. Phillips has caught 12 passes for another 142 yards and a touchdown.
Kevin Olsen, brother of Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, started the season at quarterback before being replaced by Hasaan Klugh three games ago.
Klugh has appeared in seven games, completing 70 of 106 passes (66 percent) for six touchdowns with three interceptions. He has the team's third-leading rusher with 353 yards and four touchdowns on 56 carries.
Austin Duke, who surpassed 3,000-yard career receiving yards earlier this season, has 42 catches for 531 yards and three touchdowns.
USM is coming off a defensive performance that surrendered just 226 yards total offense to Marshall. The Thundering Herd rushed for 60 yards and converted 1-of-13 third downs.
Quarterback Nick Mullens, who became USM's all-time leading passer last week, needs three touchdown passes to move into the top spot for career scoring passes.
Mullens has completed 170 of 268 passes for 2,335 yards and 17 touchdowns with eight interceptions.
Running back Ito Smith, who rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns against Marshall, needs 85 yards rushing to log a second, consecutive 1,000-yard season rushing. He ranks third on the team with 29 catches for 265 yards and a touchdown.
Allenzae Staggers, who caught his team-best sixth touchdown of the season against Marshall, leads the Golden Eagles with 37 catches for 696 yards.
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