SHREVEPORT, La. – Amid the postgame celebrations and ice baths for assistant coaches and on-camera speeches and trophy ceremonies, Willie Taggart hung back a few feet from the throng of reveling Seminoles, taking in a big-picture view of the program he inherited a few weeks ago.
Soon, the Taggart era at Florida State will begin in earnest. But on Wednesday afternoon at the Independence Bowl, the moment belonged to interim coach Odell Haggins, the remaining assistants who guided the Seminoles through bowl preparations, and the players who were determined to finish the 2017 season not just in a bowl game but with a win.
And they all seized the moment in emphatic fashion during a 42-13 rout of Southern Mississippi in front of 33,601 fans here at Independence Stadium.
Freshman quarterback James Blackman set an Indy Bowl record with four touchdowns and fellow freshman Cam Akers became FSU’s all-time freshman rushing leader as the Seminoles improved their record to 7-6 and finished with a winning record for a 41st consecutive season.
That’s the longest active streak in Division I.
“It means a lot for the kids at Florida State University,” said Haggins, who improved to 2-0 and will remain on staff with Taggart in 2018.
“This bowl record that we have, we’re going to keep moving forward. We. Not me. … We’re going to keep moving forward because that’s who we are: Florida State University.”
That was enough to overwhelm Southern Miss (8-5) for much of the afternoon. Despite falling into an early 6-0 hole, the Seminoles outgained the Golden Eagles 452-260, more than doubled them in total first downs (25-12) and held possession for nearly 37 minutes.
Ito Smith, USM’s talented running back, carried 16 times for 92 yards, but otherwise the Seminoles’ defense, playing under coordinator Charles Kelly for the final time, kept Southern Miss more than in check.
The Golden Eagles completed just 15 of 27 passes for 129 yards, with two of those passes coming via trick plays.
And after surrendering a touchdown on the game’s opening possession, the Seminoles held Southern Miss off the board for the next 40-plus minutes of game time – all while playing without key safety Derwin James, linebacker Matthew Thomas and defensive end Josh Sweat.
Kelly was one of several FSU assistants to receive an ice bath after the game, and fifth-year senior Nate Andrews (six tackles, one pass break-up) earned defensive MVP honors in his collegiate finale.
“It was a long, hard season,” freshman defensive back Stanford Samuels III said. “But we stuck together. We pretty much fought together this season, through trials and tribulations.”
But there weren’t many of those on Wednesday.
Instead, the Seminoles cruised to one of their more comfortable victories of the season, thanks in large part to an MVP performance from Blackman, a dominant effort from receiver Auden Tate, and, as usual, a steady 1-2 punch from Akers and Jacques Patrick.
A freshman thrust into action after a season-ending injury to starter Deondre Francois, Blackman earned offensive MVP honors after completing 18 of 26 passes for 233 yards and a career-high four scores – three of which went to Tate.
Tate caught five passes for 84 yards. Blackman has thrown 10 touchdowns in his last four games.
“Now that we’ve won this bowl game, I just want to thank everybody that was put around me, from the coaches to the players,” Blackman said. “Because everybody had great energy and helped me lift up this team to be in this position.”
Not to be outdone, Akers etched his name in FSU’s record books with a 13-carry, 94-yard performance that eclipsed 1,000 yards for the season and moved him ahead of Dalvin Cook for the most ever by a first-year Seminole.
Akers, a Clinton, Miss., native who grew up about 100 miles from Southern Miss’ campus in Hattiesburg, entered the game needing 79 yards to top Cook’s 1,008. He did it with a 17-yard scamper early in the third quarter and finished his freshman campaign with 1,023 yards.
That Akers reached the mark in front of a stadium full of family and friends from back home made it that much sweeter.
“It’s just truly a blessing to even be in a position to be able to do so,” Akers said. “It’s a lot of credit to my O-line, a lot of credit to my coaches and my teammates for pushing me throughout the season and get this accomplishment. It’s a great blessing.”
Speaking of which, Haggins after the game spoke about blessings, and how he’d felt blessed to be able to serve as the interim coach over the last month.
Having spent more than half his life at Florida State – five years as a player and 23 as an assistant coach – Haggins believes that the roots that run through FSU are deeper than at just any school.
As an example, he pointed to the way that an old friend from his playing days answered the call when he need a favor.
That would be Deion Sanders, a Pro Football Hall-of-Famer and Haggins’ old teammate at FSU, who arrived in Shreveport on Wednesday morning and delivered a pre-game message before the Seminoles took the field.
“When in need, one of the greatest players, one of the greatest athletes ever to put on a helmet in college football or the NFL – Deion Sanders – spent his (day) to come here and talk to these young men,” Haggins said.
“Because he bleeds garnet and gold, too. We have a special bond here at Florida State. We love each other – not (just) like each other.”
Throughout his tenure as interim coach, Haggins has consistently turned his focus forward, preferring to speak about what lies ahead, rather than the perceived turmoil surrounding previous coach Jimbo Fisher’s departure.
In a way, the Independence Bowl got in the way of that goal. Haggins and the Seminoles wanted to move on, but still had a meaningful game to play first.
Now that it’s over, and now that Taggart is set to step up from the periphery and into the spotlight, FSU’s small steps into the future will soon become big strides.
Still, when Haggins one day looks back at his career – which includes moments on all of college football’s biggest stages – he believes that the 2017 campaign, with all its trials, tribulations and ultimate triumphs, will have a place alongside his fondest memories.
“This is one of the most special seasons I’ve ever gone through,” Haggins said. “To see these young men grow, grow and have life lessons.
“That’s what this game should be about.”