Posted by Jerry Hinnen
Why You Should Watch: The easy answer is that if you want to wash down your day-after-Christmas leftovers with college football, the Golden Panthers of FIU and Rockets of Toledo are your only option. So you'll watch them in front of a three-quarters empty Ford Field and like it, buster. But given the dramatic steps forward taken by these two programs under their current coaches -- Mario Cristobal, in his fourth year and first bowl game at FIU, and Tim Beckman, in his second year in Toledo -- this is also a chance to say you saw them before they got hired away by some wealthier school.
Also: electric FIU receiver/returner/jack-of-all-trade
s T.Y. Hilton is, to use the technical term, totally sweet.
Keys to Victory for FIU: Statistically, the Panthers are one of those teams that do just about everything well rather than any one thing really well. They did finish first in the Sun Belt in rushing, total and scoring defense, though (and second in pass defense), boasting a senior first-team all-conference performer in the line (end Jarvis Wilson, team leader in both sacks and tackles-for-loss), linebackers (Toronto Smith) and secondary (corner Anthony Gaitor). And still, for all of that, it was the Panther offense that led the way to the Sun Belt title. Behind conference Player of the Year Hilton and his 1,094 yards-from-scrimmage, and the tailback tandem of Darriet Perry and Darrian Mallary (1,376 combined yards, Mallary 5.67 yards per-carry), FIU scored an average of 37.5 points in their six conference wins.
In a game that looks as even on paper as this one, big plays could prove the difference, and n players like Hilton, Mallary, and Wilson, they have the athletes that can make them. If they do, and quarterback Wesley Carroll can avoid making big plays for Toledo (he threw 13 interceptions this season), FIU should have the edge.
Keys to Victory for Toledo: Unlike the Panthers, there's no question on which side of the ball the Rockets' bread is buttered; there's a solid linebacking tandem here in senior Archie Donald and sophomore Dan Molls (267 combined tackles), but when you've finished seventh in the MAC in total defense, even with nonconference games factored out , defense is not your strength.
What is the Rockets' strength is a balanced offense that doesn't beat itself. With original starter Austin Dantin out with a separated shoulder (whether he'll be available for the bowl is unclear), freshman Terrance Owens took over down the stretch and led the Rockets to a 3-1 record with an 11-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Taking handoffs will be second-team All-MAC tailback Adonis Thomas, who totaled 905 yards and averaged an impressive 5.99 yards per attempt. But the unquestioned star of the Rocket attack is receiver Eric Page, named first team all-conference after racking up 1,081 yards and eight scores.
Page was also named the MAC Special Teams Player of the Year after returning three kickoffs for touchdowns. (Between Page and Hilton, you'll really want to watch kickoffs in this game.) His good work and the sticky fingers of the Rocket defense (their 19 interceptions tied for fifth in the country) could tilt the field position battle in Toledo's favor, and if they do, the Owens-Thomas-Page triplets are good enough to take advantage. They'll have to, to keep up with the yards and points the defense will likely concede.
The Little Caesar's Bowl is like: a fireworks show. Maybe Toledo vs. FIU looks about as interesting as a blank black sky, but with guys like Hilton and Page around and a defense as boom-or-bust as the turnover-dependent Rockets involved, if you watch long enough you're sure to see some thrilling explosions.