SHREVEPORT, La. – No matter how near or far, the Florida State football team isn’t here to talk about the past.
That was apparent during Monday’s pre-Independence Bowl press conference, when FSU interim coach Odell Haggins was asked about playing against Southern Mississippi – the Seminoles’ opponent on Wednesday – in 1989.
Haggins was a senior that year, when the Seminoles opened their season against a Golden Eagles team led by future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Brett Favre. Favre threw two touchdowns, including a game-winner with 24 seconds left. Haggins had five tackles.
But when asked about his memories from that game, Haggins wasn’t much in the mood to reminisce.
“We’re talking about now,” Haggins said. “We’re talking about the game tomorrow. I’m not concerned about that game.”
Haggins’ answer shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the Seminoles in recent weeks. Focusing on what lies ahead – rather than what’s already happened – has been a theme for Florida State ever since former coach Jimbo Fisher’s departure earlier this month.
First on a future with Haggins as interim coach, and then on a future led by Willie Taggart, who was introduced as the program’s full-time head coach on Dec. 6.
For the Seminoles, the Independence Bowl offers two opportunities: A chance to finish a challenging 2017 season on a high note, and a chance to springboard into Taggart’s tenure with some positive momentum.
Taggart will arrive in Shreveport on Tuesday and he’ll be observing from the Florida State sideline during the game.
“It’s going to be exciting to go out there and put on a show for him,” junior running back Jacques Patrick said. “We’re going to go out there and hopefully get this ‘W’ and (generate) some momentum going into next year.”
Standing in FSU’s way will be a Southern Miss team that boasts an 8-4 record and a balanced offense that averages more than 30 points per game. And complicating matters is that FSU will be without key contributors at each level of its defense. Linebacker Matthew Thomas, safety Derwin James and defensive end Josh Sweat – who rank 1, 2 and 3, respectively, on the team’s tackle leaderboard – have each opted to skip the game.
That means a wave of newcomers and veterans alike will be counted on to slow down the Golden Eagles. Freshmen Joshua Kaindoh and Hamsah Nasirildeen are expected to see increased playing time, as is fifth-year senior Nate Andrews.
“They all have worked hard,” sophomore defensive end Brian Burns said. “(Kaindoh and sophomore end Jalen Wilkerson) are a lot more tuned in since Sweat won’t be playing with us tomorrow. They’ve been locked in all year. … I’m glad to have them on my side.”
Added Andrews: “I’m really looking forward to it, because I haven’t been playing much this year and I get to start this game. I’m looking forward to going back out there with those guys and giving them my all.”
FSU hasn’t played Southern Miss since 1996, but Burns believes that the Golden Eagles’ offense will look at least somewhat familiar.
He compared their attack to Louisville’s, and said that he expects to see a steady diet of run-pass options and read-option running plays. USM quarterback Kwadra Griggs has thrown for 1,793 yards, 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and running back Ito Smith has added another 1,321 yards and 13 scores on the ground.
“(Southern Miss does) things that mess with our eyes,” Burns said. “But as long as we stay disciplined, we shouldn’t have a problem.”
While Florida State’s focus is on the future, there’s at least once piece of business that the Seminoles want to take care of before putting the 2017 season to rest.
That would be taking proper care of Haggins, the longtime Seminole whose steady hand guided the program through Fisher’s departure and lifted it to an emotional win over Louisiana-Monroe that clinched bowl eligibility.
Haggins is officially 1-0 as a head coach. And before they fully dive in with Taggart, the Seminoles want to be sure that Haggins gets to 2-0.
“Coach Haggins has been like a father figure to us,” sophomore cornerback Levonta Taylor said. “It’s been a rough season, but since he came and stepped in, everybody is head over heels and ready to go out and fight for him.”