12/20/2011 01:40 PM
Beef O'Brady's Bowl
Florida International is trying to cap its best season with just its second bowl victory. Only a dramatic touchdown in the regular-season finale allowed Marshall to even qualify. The Golden Panthers look to continue increasing their visibility as a program on the rise when they face the Thundering Herd for the first time in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Tuesday night. FIU (8-4) already has its highest single-season win total since the start of its football program in 2002, getting one more than last year when the team beat Toledo 34-32 in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
The Golden Panthers were considered a doormat when coach Mario Cristobal arrived in 2007, going 1-11 after losing all 12 games a year earlier. However, back-to-back winning seasons have them gaining confidence with the program headed in the right direction. FIU enters the Beef O'Brady's Bowl averaging 33.3 points during a three-game win streak, nearly 10.0 more points than its first nine games of the season. A balanced offensive scheme has been key to the Golden Panthers' success. Wesley Carroll has thrown 14 touchdowns with just four interceptions, and has five with no picks over the last two games.
He'll attempt to cap his collegiate career with another bowl victory after coming up with a clutch performance last year. He completed 16 of 27 passes for 140 yards before leading the Golden Panthers down the field to set up Jack Griffin's game-winning 34-yard field goal as time expired. Carroll also converted a 4th-and-17 during the final drive, hitting Jacob Younger, who flipped the ball to T.Y. Hilton for the first down. Hilton is FIU's top receiver, and holds the school career records for catches (221), receiving yards (3,443), touchdowns (24) and overall scores (36). The senior hauled in 64 passes for 950 yards with seven TDs this season, ranking among Sun Belt Conference leaders in each category.
On the ground, the Golden Panthers rely on Kedrick Rhodes, who became their first 1,000-yard rusher since they moved to the FBS in 2005. The sophomore had 1,121 rushing yards with eight touchdowns.
While FIU put together a strong season from the start, Marshall (6-6) is trying to cap an impressive turnaround. The Thundering Herd won four of their final six to become bowl eligible for the first time under second-year coach Doc Holliday. In fact, they didn't gain that status until Tron Martinez's 1-yard run in overtime clinched a 34-27 win over East Carolina in the regular-season finale Nov. 26. Marshall finished second in Conference USA's East Division, one game back of No. 22 Southern Mississippi. Holliday feels the team is improving, but he's not happy with falling short of the conference title game.
The Thundering Herd forced 28 turnovers, ranking second to Memphis' 30 in the conference. The unit is led by defensive end Vinny Curry, the 2011 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year. Curry leads the team with 11 sacks, six forced fumbles, 21 tackles for loss and three blocked kicks. He's joined on the All-Conference USA first team by safety Omar Brown, who had four interceptions with one returned 48 yards for a TD in a 59-14 rout of UAB on Oct. 29. Quarterback Rakeem Cato is trying to conclude his freshman season with another stellar performance after he was 23 of 29 for 341 yards and two touchdowns against East Carolina.
Hilton is the best player in FIU history and one of the best the Sun Belt has ever seen. He could be picked in the top three rounds of the NFL draft. Hilton was magnificent in the season's first two weeks. He caught seven of nine passes for 132 yards and a touchdown versus North Texas, then followed that up by catching seven of nine for 201 yards and two touchdowns in their nationally-televised win over Louisville. He actually garnered a little bit of very dark dark horse Heisman buzz for his combination of smoothness and speed. But he tweaked a hamstring the next week against Central Florida, and it was downhill from there. After managing a 78 percent catch rate, 18.5 yards per target and three touchdowns in two games, Hilton averaged just a 56 percent catch rate, 6.9 yards per target and four touchdowns the rest of the way. As the season progressed, FIU was forced to become more reliant on the semi-efficient running of Rhodes than on Hilton's breathtaking explosiveness.
While Marshall's defense may be able to make enough plays to stay close, it is still uncertain whether they can actually score enough to keep up. Marshall has shown potential at times, but they have just been too damn young to succeed consistently. If Hilton is dialed in for one last game in an FIU uniform, then there will be quite a bit of star power on the field when the Golden Panthers are on offense. Marshall is difficult to figure out, but even with FIU's occasional defensive vulnerability, the Golden Panthers appear to be too athletic and experienced, especially on defense. Throw in a hefty special teams advantage, and you've got what probably won't be the most memorable bowl of the bunch. Still, tune in for one last look at T.Y. Hilton and maybe a sack or two from Vinny Curry.
The pick: Florida International -4
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