December 26, 2010/8:30 pm Eastern
Detroit, MI - Ford Field
FIU Golden Panthers
Taking over the sponsorship of the Motor City Bowl last year after the recession saw the big three automakers retract their interest in the game, the Ilitch family and their Little Caesars corporation has kept the decade-long tradition of bowling in Detroit going strong. The only bowl game played in the midwestern United States, the Little Caesars Bowl is a chance for Michigan to get a taste of collegiate excitement in a setting normally reserved for the NFL. Ford Field, the home of the Detroit Lions which also recently served as the home grounds for the Minnesota Vikings after the collapse of the Metrodome roof, will be decorated in blue and gold for this year’s showdown. Florida International, who won a share of its first-ever Sun Belt championship, will travel northward out of the sunshine for their first bowl appearance in school history. The Golden Panthers will take on a Toledo team that hasn’t been bowling since 2005, engineering a 2010 season that resulted in a three-game improvement from last year’s 5-7 record in Tim Beckman’s second season as head coach. Be sure to set aside a bit of your Boxing Day to check out these two schools in action.
- FIU: One of the most exciting all-purpose runners in the nation, WR T.Y. Hilton averages 156 yards a game. Hilton does a little bit of everything for the Golden Panthers, getting a few carries a game in addition to serving as QB Wesley Carroll’s favorite target in the passing game. The junior jack-of-all-trades also fields both kick and punt returns, and how well he can both shorten the field for the offense and serve as a key component in all facets of the game when FIU has the ball will be the deciding factor in whether or not Mario Cristobal’s team can win in their first bowl appearance and end the year with a winning record.
- Toledo: Hilton’s opposite number in the Rockets’ offense is sophomore WR Eric Page, who averages two more yards a game than his counterpart. Page factors less into the running game than Hilton, but he is an even more indispensible target for Toledo QB Austin Dantin and is the third-best kickoff returner amongst all 120 FBS schools. Just like Hilton, Page will have to shorten the field for the offense and catch his usual eight balls for 90 or more yards if the Rockets are going to win for their first time in Detroit in their third appearance in this bowl.
KEY POSITIONAL BATTLE
This is a contest that will be decided entirely on the ground. FIU’s rushing attack is ranked 28th in the nation, averaging 190 yards a game in a platoon system that features no single running back for defenses to try to neutralize. In a nice bit of symmetry, Toledo’s rushing defense is also ranked 28th in the country, allowing opponents just 130 rushing yards a game. With little push in the trenches — Toledo is just 85th in the country with 5.17 tackles for loss per game — it falls to the linebackers to close down the run. Senior Archie Donald (5th in the nation with 11.17 tackles per game) and sophomore Dan Molls (8th with 10.08 tackles per game) will match up against Hilton and RBs Darriet Perry and Darrian Mallary. Whoever gets the better of the confrontation will have the upper hand in the post-Christmas festivities.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Punting: It’s been a rough year for both Toledo’s John Penza and FIU’s Josh Brisk. Both teams are among the half-dozen worst in the nation in net punting, and with Page and Hilton salivating for return yardage it is incumbent that they straighten out their coverage quickly. The field position battle could quickly skew in favor of both offenses, putting even more pressure on a couple of mediocre defenses. Neither punter is great at getting distance on their kicks — Penza averages 40.2 yards per punt, Brisk just 39.2 yards — but their coverage teams also allow opponents to get nearly ten yards closer to the endzone once they field them. Whichever team cleans up their act better with the extra practice time will be the one in position to give their defense a chance at keeping the score down.
Florida International comes into the game having lost their last regular-season contest against Middle Tennessee. Toledo is riding two straight victories, including their rivalry game with Bowling Green in the penultimate contest of the regular season. The two teams are similar in what they do well and in where their deficiencies lie. But while FIU is the conference champion, and has the added motivation of playing in their first bowl game in Golden Panthers history, Toledo also has the motivation of winning in a locale that yielded heartbreak in both 2002 and 2004. Expect a shootout between these two teams, as the offenses enjoy short fields throughout the game. FIU will have the more opportunistic defense, but look for the Rockets to get a key turnover or two (they’re ranked third in the nation in turnovers gained behind just Hawaii and Oregon) that will make the difference in this contest…
PREDICTION: Toledo 41, FIU 38