Florida International topped Toledo with a last-second field goal, capping a wild fourth quarter, 34-32.
Offense: It wasn't always easy to watch, especially with Wesley Carroll redefining inconsistency at quarterback. But T.Y. Hilton lived up to his considerable hype, playing a role in FIU's three consecutive second-half touchdowns (89-yard kickoff return TD, decoy on wildcat keeper TD, and TD reception) that gave the Golden Panthers their first lead of the game. Hilton was also the recepient of a hook-and-ladder on 4th and 17 on FIU's last drive, which helped set up the game-winning field goal. All in all, Carroll finished 16-27 for 140 yards, a score, and an interception, while Hilton contributed 210 all-purpose yards. Grade: B
Defense: FIU couldn't have completed its fourth-quarter comeback without forcing numerous turnovers, as it so did against Toledo. Toledo QB Terrance Owens was pressured into three second-half interceptions, and a blocked punt late in the fourth quarter nearly buried Toledo. And yet, Toledo was not buried, and the Rockets completed a late drive to take the lead, putting FIU under enormous pressure. It only set the stage for the dramatic final drive, of course, but still: FIU's defense didn't hold when it needed to the most. Grade: C
Coaching: Mario Cristobal did a fine job of not letting his players wilt, whether under the pressure of the program's first bowl game or of the 17-point deficit they found themselves in early in the second half. Some of that credit also goes to Hilton, of course, but Cristobal also did a great job getting the ball into Hilton's hands in a variety of ways -- including that late hook-and-ladder. I didn't agree with all of Cristobal's decisions over the course of the game, but all in all FIU at least stayed in position to win for the entire game, and that credit belongs to the coaches. Grade: B
Offense: Terrance Owens is something of an enigma at QB for the Rockets: wonderfully gifted in both athleticism and arm strength, but a liability in the pocket while under pressure. Owens' three second-half picks (most of which came with him standing still and a defender closing in) helped let the Golden Panthers back in the ballgame, and effectively negated the 304 yards of rushing the Rockets rolled up thanks to running back Adonis Thomas and company. Still, even with a -3 turnover ratio, the Rockets came thiiiiis close to winning the game, and the loss wasn't due to a failure on offense. Grade: B
Defense: During the time it took for Toledo gave up three straight touchdowns to relinquish the lead, the Rockets' defense only gave up 89 yards. Granted, that was still enough for the Golden Panthers' offense to get into the end zone twice, thanks to short fields, but there was also a three-and-out and a Myshan Veasley-Pettis interception in that mix too. And yet, we cannot endorse a defense that allows T.Y. Hilton -- the guy FIU has been trying to get the ball to all game long -- to take a hook-and-ladder for a first down on 4th and 17. How do you not see that one coming? Grade: B-
Coaching: It's hard to put this loss on Toledo head coach Tim Beckman ; after all, it's not as if he never thought to tell Owens to stop throwing passes off his back foot into triple coverage or told his players to ignore T.Y. Hilton. Just like with Cristobal, Beckman had his players in position to win for the entire game; the swings of chance on the field had more control over the final result than did any coaching decision on Beckman's part.
One decision, however, that seems to have backfired was the last two-point conversion. After Owens took in a keeper to bring Toledo within one point with 1:14 left in the game, Beckman decided to go for two points, a decision that seems to have been vindicated by the successful conversion by WR Eric Page . And yet, if Toledo kicks the extra point, this game probably goes to overtime; recall, if you will, that FIU's big play came on 4th down, a play that calls for a punt in a tie game and not an insane trick play. Indeed, by giving his team a one-point lead with 74 seconds left, Beckman essentially gave FIU a daunting but plausible challenge: get into field goal range with that 1:14 or lose the game. Thus, the wild ending. It seems wiser to go for two at the end of regulation only when there's not enough time for the other team to put together a decent-sized drive; 1:14, quite demonstrably, was enough such time. Grade: C
It would be downright ungrateful to give anything less than a stellar grade to a game that features 66 points, five fourth-down attempts, and three lead changes in the last 7:34 -- including two in the last 75 seconds. Sure, the first half was a snoozer, and the turnovers were more the product of poor decision-making than some brilliant defensive work, but this is the type of 60-minute insanity we'd been hoping for all bowl season long. If this is the best bowl of the year, we're all in trouble, but it's at least the best so far. Grade: B+/A-