Southern Miss Falls to Florida State in Independence Bowl
SHREVEPORT, La. - University of Southern Mississippi football coaches had been talking for the better of the past month about the level of talent on Florida State University's team.
Wednesday afternoon, the Golden Eagles got an up-close-and-personal look at just how talented the Seminoles were during the 42nd annual Independence Bowl.
FSU freshman quarterback James Blackman threw for a bowl-record four touchdown passes as the Seminoles scored on eight of its first nine possessions in a 42-13 victory over the Golden Eagles.
Blackman, who completed 18-of-26 passes for 223 yards, was named Offensive Player of the Game. FSU senior defensive back Nate Andrews, who had six tackles and pass breakup, was voted Defensive Player of the Game.
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak by the Golden Eagles (8-5), who lost for the first time in three trips to the Independence Bowl.
"I thought we started out good, but we didn't get a lot going after that," Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson said. "I thought we had a few chances early in the game and in the second half to get back into the game.
"We played hard and fought, but give Florida State all the credit. They deserved the win."
The victory gave the Seminoles (7-6) their 41st consecutive winning season.
"We have character here," said interim FSU head coach Odell Haggins, who guided the Seminoles in the regular-season finale and through bowl preparations after Coach Jimbo Fisher left for Texas A&M University.
"No matter what people say, we're not going anywhere."
FSU receiver Auden Tate tied a bowl-record with three touchdown receptions as the Seminoles put up 452 yards total offense while holding the Golden Eagles to 260 yards.
Southern Miss senior running back Ito Smith netted 92 yards rushing in his final game as a Golden Eagle. With 26 yards receiving and another 72 yards on kickoff returns, Smith collected 190 all-purpose yards.
"It hasn't really sunk in yet," said Smith, who finished with 1,415 yards rushing, the fourth-best rushing season in program history. "I am sure it will, maybe tomorrow or the next day."
Southern Miss quarterback Kwadra Griggs completed 13-of-25 passes for 86 yards. Griggs, who scored USM's opening touchdown on a 5-yard run, threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Korey Robertson in the third quarter for the Golden Eagles' only other points.
"Ito had some good runs, but it was hard to get the passing game going," Hopson said. "Florida State got a good rush on the quarterback."
Cam Akers, the Clinton High School product who was named the 2016 Gatorade Player of the Year, rushed for 94 yards against the Golden Eagles Wednesday, pushing him past Dalvin Cook's freshman rushing record of 1,008 yards.
Akers, who finished with 1,024 yards rushing this season, also collected his first collegiate touchdown catch when he hauled in a 14-yard pass from Blackman in the second quarter.
Akers was backed by the bruising runs of the 237-pound junior Jacques Patrick, who pounded for 61 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
"I thought we did a pretty good job for the most part, but it came down to (Patrick)," Hopson said. "I felt he carried them in bunches there, and looking at him from the sideline, he seemed to be everywhere."
FSU, which was playing in its 36th consecutive bowl game, committed a pair of gaffes on the opening possession of the game that helped the Golden Eagles score.
FSU was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct on the opening kickoff, setting up Southern Miss at its 37-yard line. The Seminoles forced a punt, but the Golden Eagles got 15 more yards and a first down when Zac Everett was run over.
Smith broke off a 33-yard run, the Golden Eagles' longest play of the day, to set up a first-and-goal, and Griggs capped the drive with a 5-yard run. Parker Shaunfield missed his second extra point of the season, but the Golden Eagles led 6-0.
The lead didn't last long.
Blackman found Tate with a 20-yard touchdown pass to cap a 12-play, 75-yard drive and Ricky Aguayo's extra point gave FSU a lead it would never lose.
"At the end of the day, I am proud of our guys for playing hard and not giving up," Hopson said. "I tell you, I'm blessed to be the head coach here...I just love the way we continue to fight. We fought that thing down to the bitter end."