FIU Seeks a Florida-Best 9-4 Record by Beating Marshall in Beef 'O' Brady BowlDecember 17, 2011
ST. PETERSBURG, FL – It’s only fitting that a bowl set in one of the Sunshine State’s classiest cities should feature the Florida team with the best won-loss record this season.
Florida International University (8-4, 5-3 Sun Belt Conference) ended up with a school-best eight victories in 2011 and landed a spot in the Beef ‘O’ Brady Bowl against Marshall University (6-6, 5-3 Conference USA).
The Beef ‘O’ Brady Bowl is set for Tuesday, Dec. 20 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fl. with kickoff scheduled for 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. The game will feature offensive stars from both teams who played their high school football in Florida.
Although the Golden Panthers’ record wasn’t good enough to win the conference championship which went to Arkansas State (unbeaten in Sun Belt action this season), FIU’s 8-4 mark was solid enough to give it the shiniest record among the seven BCS teams that hail from Florida, most of which had dismally overcast campaigns this fall.
Only Florida State, which matched FIU’s 8-4 slate, managed to finish above .500 with Florida and Miami both at 6-6 while South Florida, Central Florida and Florida Atlantic failed to qualify for a bowl bid.
It’s worth noting that the University of Miami – which by the way declined a bowl bid even though it did have the necessary six wins – is not in Miami but in the neighboring city of Coral Gables while Florida International is smack dab in the middle of Miami, right there on 8th Street.
The Golden Panthers have steadily improved their position among the Sunshine State’s gridiron hierarchy. FIU joined the BCS in 2005 and suffered through the inherent growing pains precipitated by climbing up in class, the most painful of which being the morass of a winless season in 2006.
The following year the team’s present head coach, Mario Cristobal, took over. Despite a baby-step improvement to 1-11 in his first year, Cristobal has wooed some talented athletes to the Miami campus and now has put together back-to-back winning seasons as Florida International continues to climb its way up the BCS ladder.
While FIU became bowl eligible with a couple games remaining on its schedule, the Marshall Thundering Herd needed a score in overtime during the final regular season game to notch that magical sixth victory, a one-yard run by the team’s leading rusher, Tron Martinez, that sealed a 34-27 victory over East Carolina.
That was the fourth win in the final six games as head coach Doc Holliday drove the Herd to an impressive stretch run in his second season although they did fall a game short of catching the C-USA East Division leader, 22nd-ranked Southern Miss, which won the conference title with a convincing win over previously undefeated and seventh-ranked Houston.
Marshall likes moving the ball through the air, gaining 2,547 yards passing to only 1,477 on the ground. Ironically, both Marshall quarterbacks hail from Florida. Freshman Rakeem Cato, a graduate of Miami Central High, takes a majority of the snaps and has thrown for 1,833 yards and 13 TDs but also has been intercepted ten times. Sophomore reserve A.J. Graham, who will no doubt visit Tallahassee, his hometown, during his stay in St. Pete, threw for seven scores and had four picked off in limited action. But Graham is much more mobile than Cato, gaining 237 yards to the freshman’s 28.
In fact, Graham was the third leading rusher for the Thundering Herd this fall, behind Martinez’s 591 and 529 by Travon Van. In an odd stat, the back-up QB scored as many rushing touchdowns as each of the team’s principal ballcarriers: each player scored three times.
Unlike Marshall, the Golden Panthers depend on one workhorse to run the ball, Kedrick Rhodes, a 5-foot-11 sophomore from Ocala, Fl. who averaged 5.0 yards per carry this season, totaling 1,121 yards and eight touchdowns.
FIU likes its passing game to gobble up big chunks of yardage at a time, something which its senior quarterback-receiver duo of Wesley Carroll and T.Y. Hilton are quite capable of doing.
Carroll, a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fl., threw for 2,224 yards this season, completing 59.7 percent of his passes, good for 14 TDs while only throwing four interceptions.
Half of those scoring passes went to Hilton, who grew up in Miami. He caught 64 passes for 950 yards, an average of 14.8 yards per catch.
Hilton, who very well could be the next Devin Hester, is an adventure in the making every time he returns a kick. This year his most scintillating return was an 89-yard run-back of a kickoff against Toledo.
Fans heading for the Beef ‘O’ Brady Bowl, basking in the balmy breezes off the bay, should see quite an offensive showing under the dome at The Trop.
FIU appears to have a bit more incentive in this matchup, striving to not only win one for the host state but, should Florida State lose to Notre Dame in the Champs Sports Bowl, then the Golden Panthers can boast the best record in the Sunshine State.
Prediction: Florida International 37, Marshall 31.