FSU grinds down USM in Independence Bowl

FSU grinds down USM in Independence Bowl
Head coach Jay Hopson said he is proud of his guys for playing hard and not giving up. (Photo source: WDAM)
Head coach Jay Hopson said he is proud of his guys for playing hard and not giving up. (Photo source: WDAM)

SHREVEPORT, LA. (WDAM) - Less than five minutes into Wednesday afternoon's 42nd annual Independence Bowl, the University of Southern Mississippi held a 6-0 lead.

And, pretty much, Florida State University basically shrugged.

The Golden Eagles simply could not get the Seminoles' offense off the football field at Independence Stadium, as FSU scored on eight of its first nine possessions on its way to a 42-13 victory.

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," USM 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."

FSU freshman quarterback James Blackman completed 18-of-26 passes for 233 yards and a bowl record four touchdowns as the Seminoles (7-6) secured their 41st consecutive winning season with the victory.

"We have character here," said FSU interim coach Odell Haggins, who coached the Seminoles in the regular-season finale and through the bowl game after the departure of Coach Jimbo Fisher for Texas A&M University.

"No matter what people say, we're not going anywhere. We're not going anywhere."

FSU junior receiver Auden Tate tied a bowl-record with three touchdown receptions, and running backs Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick combined to rush for 155 yards and a touchdown. The Seminoles put up 452 yards total offense while holding the Golden Eagles to 260 yards.

USM 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."

But USM's passing game struggled to find any sort of rhythm.

Junior quarterback Kwadra Griggs completed 13-of-25 passes for only 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, good pressure on Kwadra."

Akers, the Clinton High School product who was named the 2016 Gatorade Player of the Year, rushed for 94 yards, not only pushing him over the 1,000-yard mark in his first season with the Seminoles, but pushing him past Dalvin Cook's freshman rushing record of 1,008 yards during the 2014 season.

Akers, who also caught a 14-yard pass for the first receiving touchdown of his career, finished with 1,024 yards this season.

Akers was backed by the bruising runs of the 237-pound 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.

Sophomore linebacker Dontavious Jackson was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct, setting up USM at its 37-yard line. The Seminoles forced a Golden Eagles' punt, but freshman defensive end Janarius Robinson gave USM 15 more yards and a first down when he roughed punter Zac Everett.

Smith broke off a 33-yard run, USM's longest play of the day, to set up a first-and-goal, and Griggs capped the drive with a 5-yard run. Though Parker Shaunfield missed his second extra point of the season, the Golden Eagles led 6-0.

That turned out to be the high-water mark of the Golden Eagles' day.

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.

Blackman followed with a 14-yard scoring toss to a wide-open Akers on a little leak route to the left for a 13-6 lead. Aguayo, who would miss two extra-point attempts Wednesday, bumped the lead to 16-6 with the first of his three field goals, and following a Smith fumble, Blackman capped a 24-yard drive with a 10-yard scoring pass to Tate just 1:33 before halftime.

The second half was more of the same. Aguayo sandwiched 39-yard field goals around Patrick's 2-yard run and Blackman's 17-yard touchdown pass to Tate to finish off FSU's scoring. USM's only answer was the Griggs-Robinson connection.

"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."