FIU will make its first-ever bowl appearance, when the Golden Panthers take on the Toledo Rockets in the 2010 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, which will be played at Ford Field.
The Golden Panthers jumped to the FBS back in 2003 and in that short period of time, they have made tremendous strides, but this year's team cleared a new hurdle. This year FIU took it to a new level. After beginning the campaign with four straight losses, the Golden Panthers captured wins in six of their last eight matchups. The season-ending loss to Middle Tennessee was crippling though, as it took away from FIU's chances of claiming the outright Sun Belt Conference title. However, with six victories under their belt and more importantly a share of the league title the Golden Panthers earned a spot in a bowl game for the first time in the program's history and coach Mario Cristobal, who was named Sun Belt Coach of the Year, understands the importance of this new challenge.
"It's great to finally be able to walk the walk," said coach Cristobal. "We have been talking and preaching this since the day we got to FIU. We have overcome a number of monumental hurdles along the way and now we find ourselves in position to accomplish the rest of our goals for this season."
Toledo is one of four Mid-American Conference teams that received a bowl bid this season, and the Rockets achieved that feat by winning eight games. The campaign did not begin on a high note, though. Tim Beckman's Rockets opened the year with a 41-2 loss to Arizona, but bounced back by claiming three straight wins, all of which came on the road. After back-to-back losses to Wyoming and Boise State, the Rockets closed out their regular season with wins in five of their last six matchups. Toledo's season ended with victories over Bowling Green and Central Michigan at home, solidifying the team's chances at its first bowl game since 2005.
"Playing in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl is a great reward for our players," said coach Tim Beckman, "especially the seniors, who have worked very hard this season and are deserving of a bowl of this stature and reputation."
Surprisingly the Rockets have enjoyed great success in bowl games, winning eight of their 10 postseason trips. The 1984 matchup in the California Bowl against UNLV was initially a 30-13 setback, but because UNLV used ineligible players Toledo was given the win by forfeit. In 2005, the Rockets snapped a two-game slide in postseason play with a convincing, 48-13 victory over Texas- El Paso in the GMAC Bowl.
This will be the third matchup on the gridiron between the two teams. In 2008, the Golden Panthers grabbed a win in Toledo, but the Rockets repaid the favor in 2009, defeating FIU in Miami.
The Golden Panthers were not overwhelming this season on offense, but their 28.3 ppg were definitely good enough to get this team over the hump in league play, and finally into a bowl game.
The majority of the team's success has come via the run, as FIU comes into Detroit producing 189.2 ypg on the ground. The team does not have one clear cut option, and instead relies on a few different players. The top back has been Darriet Perry, who earned First Team honors in the Sun Belt Conference after rushing for 707 yards and 14 touchdowns. Darian Mallary has contributed 669 rushing yards on the season, and wide out T.Y. Hilton has even tallied 278 yards and four scores on the ground.
Hilton, who was tabbed as the league's Top Player in 2010, helped out the team on the ground, but he is more dangerous as a receiver and in the return game, and because of his play in both areas he earned First Team nods as a return specialist, as well as a wide receiver. However, he will not fly under the radar in Detroit, because coach Beckman is aware of his talents.
"He can take a game over as a specialist, and as a wide receiver," said coach Beckman. "He is a very very good football player."
Hilton, who scored once on a kick return this season, found the end zone four times as a receiver and was clearly Wes Carroll's main target, finishing the year with 56 receptions and 816 yards. Coach Cristobal will find a way to get the ball in Hilton's hands as much as possible, and rightfully so, because he gives the Golden Panthers their best chance to win.
It would behoove Carroll to look for Hilton early and often, but Carroll does not need to lean on the talent wide out. Through the year Carroll has done a solid job spreading the football around and that has helped him complete over 60.0 percent of his throws.
The offense for FIU, might have been ready to go every game, but the defense definitely showed signs of inconsistency, and that lack of reliability helped opponents rack up 26.9 ppg against the Golden Panthers.
Stopping the run was a major problem for this unit, which has been gashed for 157.8 ypg and 22 touchdowns via the run. However, despite the lack of success up front, defensive linemen Jarvis Wilson and Tourek Williams still grabbed spots on the First and Second All-Sun Belt Teams, respectively. FIU finished with 31 sacks on the year, but 7.5 came from Wilson, while Williams contributed six sacks. This team might struggle against the run, but pressuring the quarterback and defending the pass has not been a problem.
While Wilson and Williams are hunting down opposing quarterbacks, safety Jonathan Cyprien and defensive back Anthony Gaitor are making sure receivers are stopped before and after they catch the ball. Cyprien, who earned Second Team honors in the Sun Belt, led the Golden Panthers with 105 tackles, while Gaitor, a First Team selection, finished with two interceptions and 50 stops.
Coach Cristobal has a dangerous weapon in Hilton, but coach Beckman is fortunate to have his own triple threat in sophomore Eric Page. Page is more known for his returning abilities and was tabbed by the Mid-American Conference as the Special Teams Player of the Year, and not only received First Team honors in that area in the conference, but also in multiple media outlets.
"To make two major All-America teams in one season is a rare achievement," said coach Beckman. "This says a lot about Eric and the work he has put in, as well as the efforts of our kick return team and coaching staff. Eric is a humble young man so I know he sees this as a team award."
Page scored on three kick returns this season, but also found the end zone plenty of times as a receiver, hauling in eight on the year, while pacing the squad with 94 receptions and 1,081 yards. Because of his success at wideout, Page also earned First Team honors in the MAC at that position as well.
The sophomore threat opened the year catching passes from Austin Dantin, but he went down with an injury, and although he has been practicing, it looks like Terrance Owens will be the starter in Detroit.
"TO [Terrance Owens] will be our starter," said coach Beckman. "Austin [Dantin] has been out there practicing and he gets better each and every day, but TO will be the starter."
Owens was fantastic while filling in for Dantin, as the young signal caller completed just over 60.0 percent of his throws in six games, while tossing 12 touchdowns against just two interceptions.
Because of the electric play of Page, the passing attack gets plenty of the attention. The truth though, is that Toledo can also find success on the ground and comes into this matchup churning out 156.0 ypg. Adonis Thomas, a Second Team MAC selection, has paced the squad's rushing attack, having rumbled for 905 yards and six touchdowns.
If not for the offense exploding each and every game, Toledo's record on the season could be drastically different, as the team needed all of those points to overcome the shortcomings of the defense. This unit surrendered close to 30.0 ppg, and struggled against the run, allowing opponents to rumbled for 130.6 ypg and 25 touchdowns.
The Rockets were able to benefit from forcing 33 takeaways, but more importantly, what kept this defense afloat was the efforts of linebackers Archie Donald and Dan Molls. Donald, who was an All-MAC Second Team selection, finished with 134 tackles and three interceptions. Molls, who also grabbed three picks, tallied 133 stops and also collected four sacks as well.
Both teams are very similar on both sides of the football, and both programs even possess electrifying athletes that can perform at a high level at multiple positions. This game will likely come down to who out-performs who in the battle of Hilton and Page. Hilton and the Golden Panthers have enjoyed a banner season, but a victory in their first bowl appearance might not be in the cards.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Toledo 38, FIU 35