ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A relative newcomer to the college football scene, Florida International feels like it is just beginning to realize its potential.
The Golden Panthers have won a program-best eight games this season and face Marshall in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl on Tuesday night.
The postseason appearance is the second in school history for FIU (8-4), which is in just its seventh season in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Coach Mario Cristobal not only proud of beating Toledo in last year’s Little Caesars Bowl, but of having the best record among FBS programs in the Sunshine State in 2011.
That includes the tradition-rich Big Three of Florida, Florida State and Miami, as well as South Florida and Central Florida.
“We’ve not been around for a very long time. We’ve only been a Division I football team for a handful of years, but we are coming on and coming on fast. We don’t intend on slowing down,” the one-time Miami and Rutgers assistant said. “Honestly, our kids feel like we’re just scratching the surface, but we have a long ways to go and want to get there as fast as we possibly can.”
Beating Marshall (6-6) would be another step. With Conference USA on the verge of needing to replace some members that are headed for the Big East, some feel the Panthers would be a nice fit for the league, which has Thundering Herd and four other teams in bowl games.
FIU began play in 2002 and joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2005. Cristobal is 24-35 in five seasons, including a 24-17 win at Big East co-champion Louisville in September, the Panthers’ first victory over a member of a Bowl Championship Series conference.
T.Y. Hilton had scoring receptions of 74 and 83 yards on the way to a FIU-record 201 yards receiving in that game. Quarterback Wesley Carroll has thrown for 2,224 yards and 14 TDs and Panthers leading rusher Kedrick Rhodes has run for 1,121 yards and eight TDs.
The Panthers beat UCF a week after taking down Louisville. Two weeks later, they lost at home to Duke 31-27. To gain postseason consideration, FIU closed with a three-game winning streak.
“They really worked hard all season and elevated our program now to another level in a very short time and against tremendous obstacles,” said Cristobal, who expects a sharp performance against Marshall, which is making its first bowl appearance under coach Doc Holliday.
“I know one thing, they understand now how precious these things are now. ... This is our second consecutive postseason opportunity, and that to us, is even more exciting than the opportunity last year,” Cristobal added. “The best way to enjoy it is by playing well and taking full advantage of the opportunity.”
Marshall won four of six down the stretch, including a regular season-ending victory over East Carolina to become bowl eligible. It’s the 10th bowl appearance overall for the Thundering Herd, who beat Ohio in the Little Caesars Bowl two years ago.
Freshman Rakeem Cato has thrown for 1,833 yards and 13 TDs for Marshall. Senior Vinny Curry is second in the nation with 21.5, including 11 sacks, and is the Conference USA defensive player of the year.
“We’re definitely excited about playing at this point. We worked hard for this game,” Curry said. “We’re down here on a mission, and that’s to win a football game.”
With FIU located Miami and Marshall fans having a reputation for supporting their team, bowl officials are hoping for a lively crowd at Tropicana Field, the home of baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.
“I can assure you as the head football coach at Marshall, there’s not a program in America that means more to their fan base, more to their community and more to their school than what the Marshall football program does,” said Holliday, who finishing his second season with the Thundering Herd. “You can’t believe the passion that our fans have for our program.”
Florida International (8-4)
vs. Marshall (6-6)
Today, 7 p.m., ESPN
Line — FIU by 4.
Series Record — First meeting.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Florida International is attempting to build a name in college football. The Golden Panthers began their program in 2002 and are in their seventh season in the Football Bowl Subdivision. This is a matchup between the last two winners of the Little Caesars Bowl. Marshall beat Ohio there two years ago, and FIU beat Toledo in 2010.
FIU multi-purpose threat T.Y. Hilton vs. Marshall’s secondary and special teams. Hilton had a 201-yard receiving game against Louisville and finished the regular season with 64 receptions for 950 yards and seven touchdowns. He also was a first-team all-Sun Belt Conference selection as a kick returner and all-purpose player.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Florida International — QB Wesley Carroll has completed 181 of 303 passes for 2,224 yards and 14 TDs, while RB Kedrick Rhodes has run for 1,121 yards and eight TDs.
Marshall — QB Rakeem Cato has completed 155 of 265 passes for 1,833 yards and 13 TDs. Leading receiver Aaron Dobson has 42 receptions for 587 yards and 10 TDs. DE Vinny Curry is second in the nation with 21½ tackles for loss, including 11 sacks. His 48 career tackles for a loss are tops among active players.
FACTS & FIGURES
FIU is 1-0 in bowl games. Marshall is 6-2 all-time. ... The game is being played at 33,000-seat Tropicana Field, home of baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays. ... A different team from Conference USA’s East Division has represented the league in St. Petersburg for the four bowl games played at the domed stadium.