USM looking forward to Independence Bowl opportunity

USM looking forward to Independence Bowl opportunity

SHREVEPORT, LA. (WDAM) - University of Southern Mississippi senior running back Ito Smith sometimes can be a man of few words.

Tuesday morning, during a final news conference prior to Wednesday afternoon's Independence Bowl, Smith said the Golden Eagles were looking forward to facing Florida State University.

"It's great to have an opportunity to show who we are," said Smith, who posted his third, consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. "We are excited to play against a program like Florida State."

The once-long-time rivals who have not played one another in a while will meet at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at Independence Bowl Stadium.

It will mark the first meeting between the Golden Eagles (8-4) and the Seminoles (6-6) since 1996, but the 23rd meeting between the two. FSU has won five of the past six meetings and is favored to win by more than two touchdowns Wednesday.

But FSU has ridden a roller-coaster since the season kicked off in August, losing its starting quarterback for the season after only three-plus quarters of play and dropping five of its first seven games. The Seminoles rallied to win its final three games and to earn a bid to a bowl game for a 36th consecutive postseason.

"Both teams are prepared to win, there's no doubt about that," USM coach Jay Hopson said. "Again, we know we're playing an outstanding football team. Florida State's a football team who lost — a few of those losses on their schedule are teams that are competing in the College Football Playoffs.

"So, they're a football team that is extremely talented. They have talent at all the skill positions and up front, offensively and defensively, in the line. And, again, they're a team that at the start of the season ranked number three in the country. So, we know we're playing a very talented football team. Again, it's certainly a challenge that we're certainly looking forward to."

The Golden Eagles come in having won their final three games of the year, with junior quarterback Kwadra Griggs returning from a hand injury to settle in behind center down the stretch

"I know it's going to be a big bowl game, a great team coming in we're playing," said Griggs, who has completed 56.2 percent of his passes for 1,793 yards and 15 touchdowns with only two interceptions. "We're going to try to just go out there and execute and do what Southern Miss (does).

"It's going to be exciting, going to be a lot of people. We're just ready to play, ready to go out there and execute and show what we got on this Southern Miss team."

Smith, who accepted an invitation to take part in the 2018 Senior Bowl in January, rushed for 1,323 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. He became just the 10thplayer in FBS history to post 4,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a career while becoming the Golden Eagles' all-time leader in all-purpose yards.

Junior Korey Robertson became just the sixth Golden Eagle to log a 1,000-yard receiving season, pulling down 72 catches for 1,070 yards and 11 touchdowns.

FSU sophomore defensive end Brian Burns said the Golden Eagles run a scheme similar to the University of Louisville

"They do a lot of read options and stuff like that, but as long as we stay disciplined, we shouldn't have any problems," Burns said.

FSU lost sophomore quarterback Deondre Francois in the fourth quarter of the season opener against the University of Alabama.

But a pair of true freshmen has stepped up to lead the Seminoles' offense.

Running back Cam Akers, the 2016 Gatorade High School Player of the Year at Clinton High School, has rushed for 930 yards and seven touchdowns. Akers is 79 yards shy of breaking Dalvin Cook's FSU freshmen rushing record (1,008 yards).

Quarterback James Blackman has become FSU's leading freshman passer, starting 11 games and completing 57.2 percent of his passes for 1,997 yards and 15 scores with 11 interceptions. During the Seminoles' three-game winning streak, Blackman has thrown six touchdown passes, and over the last five games, has eight TD passes with interceptions.

"The thing about Florida State is they've got talent out wide, (its) quarterback is a dual-threat guy that's athletic, he can throw it, and they have a couple good running backs and Cam is one of them that are very talented," Hopson said. "So, I don't think at Florida State you can focus on one area. They're talented enough. Their offensive line, big, athletic, they move extremely well. We have to play a complete game and that's the reality."

USM will be making its third appearance in the Independence Bowl, winning in both 1980 and 1988. For FSU, Wednesday will be its Independence Day debut.

The Seminoles will be without defensive stalwart, red-shirt safety sophomore Derwin James, who decided to sit out the bowl game to prepare for the National Football League draft.

Two other FSU defenders, junior defensive end Josh Sweat and senior linebacker Michael Thomas, are also expected to miss the game.

"We're going to play together," FSU interim head coach Odell Haggins said. "We always say – and Derwin James would say this if you called him right now – next man up."