On a day that saw two University of Southern Miss quarterbacks sent wobbling to the sideline, the Golden Eagles may have suffered an even more significant loss Saturday: a clear path to Conference USA’s West Division championship.
USM lost starting quarterback Nick Mullens in the third quarter and back-up Parker Adamson on its final possession and its defense gave up more than 300 yards rushing for the second time in three C-USA games as Charlotte University laid a 38-27 licking on the Golden Eagles before 28,347 at Roberts Stadium.
USM (5-4, 3-2 C-USA) lost for the third time in its last four games and for the second time in four home games. Charlotte (4-5, 3-2), which only has been playing football at the Football Bowl Subdivision level for two seasons, won for the third time in its last four games.
It also means that with two losses, USM might need help to defend its West Division crown.
“Not a very good day,” USM coach Jay Hopson said. “The reality is, we’re still in this playoff run, and we have to put this one behind us. It’s not a good feeling any time we lose.
“You’re not happy about it, but if we’re a good team, we’ll get rid of it and move on and get ready for the next one. That’s the reality of the grind through November.”
Mullens and Adamson combined to throw for 404 yards and two touchdowns, as USM outgained Charlotte 498 total yards to 439 yards.
But Charlotte picked off Mullens twice and intercepted emergency quarterback Tez Parks a play after Adamson was helped to the sidelines with two minutes left to play.
The 49ers also blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown to take a 38-14 late in the third quarter.
For the fourth time in their last five games, the Golden Eagles failed to come up with a turnover. USM has just one takeaway over that stretch, an interception against Louisiana State University.
Neither Mullens nor Adamson were on the field at game’s end.
Mullens had been driven hard into the turf at the end of a quarterback draw midway through the third quarter, and seemed dazed before being escorted to the huddle.
After drawing a delay of game penalty, he was replaced by Adamson for a third-down snap. Mullens returned on the next series, but gave way to Adamson after a three-and-out.
Hopson said Mullens was pulled as a precaution.
“Our trainers and doctors checked him out and they said he was OK,” Hopson said. “Then, he came off and when he went back in, he took another hit, and I think for precaution, we were going to hold him for right now.
“I think he’s OK, but the reality is, we’re going to listen to our medical people on that, because us football coaches aren’t doctors. We’re going to listen to our guys and then make that decision.”
Adamson led the Golden Eagles to touchdowns on the next two series, but after driving USM to near midfield, he took a hit to the head while scrambling for six yards and had to be escorted off the field.
Hopson did not rule either Mullens or Adamson out for next week’s conference game at Old Dominion, but said he and the staff had to make a decision this week on whether to remove the red-shirt from true freshman back-up quarterback Keon Howard.
“Now, we’re in a tough decision,” Hopson said. “We have to make a tough decision this week on Keon.
“We’ve been trying to hold him, and redshirt him and it’s certainly a tough call there for us. It’s something we’re going to have to look into.”
Charlotte running back Kalif Phillips, who had come into Saturday’s game averaging 79.7 yards a game, punished the Golden Eagles for 183 yards on 29 carries, including a 72-yard ramble on Charlotte’s first offensive snap of the game that set up the 49ers’ first score.
Philips’ backup, Robert Washington, added 94 yards on just six carries, including a 58-yard touchdown burst.
The onslaught came a week after the Golden Eagles had limited Marshall to just 60 yards rushing on the same field.
Instead, USM looked like the defense that allowed Texas-San Antonio to rush for 339 yards.
“I don’t know,” USM safety Picasso Nelson Jr. said. “Whenever we play with passion, we play our best games. The last game we played, we played with passion. This week, we just had an easy-come, easy-go attitude. Same thing that happened at UTSA. We had an easy-come, easy-go attitude, and that’s when bad things happen.”
Quarterback Hasaan Klugh, who completed 11 of 24 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown, also ran for a touchdown for a sixth consecutive game, a 7-yard scamper around left end to give the 49ers a 7-0 lead.
Mullens, who completed 19 of 25 passes for 249 yards, threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Korey Robertson and an 83-yard scoring pass to Chase Whitehead to give USM a 14-7 lead after one quarter.
Washington broke free up the middle on his long run to tie the game 92 seconds into the second quarter, and the 49ers took the lead for good with a pair of touchdowns just 71 seconds apart right before halftime.
Receiver Chris Montgomery capped a 12-play, 99-yard drive with a 9-yard end around with 1:46 left in the second quarter to put the 49ers up 21-14.
“It’s not about what they were doing, but what we were doing,” Nelson said. “If a team can drive 99 yards on us, it’s our fault. I’m not doing my job and people aren’t doing their job.”
Four plays later, Mullens was intercepted by linebacker Daquan Lucas at the USM 47, who returned to the 18. On the first play, Klugh hit T.L. Ford II over the middle for the score for a 28-14 lead with 35 seconds left in the half.
Charlotte tacked on a 22-yard field goal by Blake Brewer in the third quarter, then boosted its lead to 38-14 when Juwan Fogge broke through to block Tyler Sarrazin’s punt into the end zone, where it was recovered for a touchdown by Ed Rolle.
“That swing from 14-14 to 28-14 was huge,” Hopson said.
USM rallied, scoring on an 8-yard run by Ito Smith early in the fourth quarter to get within 38-20. Smith, who 116 yards from scrimmage, has a streak of 14 games scoring at least one touchdown.
Adamson, who completed 13 of 27 passes for 155 yards, brought the Golden Eagles closer with a 2-yard run with 4:56 to play.
USM got the ball back with 4:00 to go, but Terrance Winchester’s interception at the 5-yard ended the Golden Eagles’ final hope.