Rockets fall 34-32 to FIU in stunner at Little Caesars Pizza BowlWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
DETROIT, Mich.—Second-year Toledo head coach Tim Beckman knew exactly what he wanted to do. He’s a competitor, and he wanted to win. The Rockets had just orchestrated a nine-play, 62-yard touchdown drive to make it a 31-30 ballgame after redshirt freshman quarterback Terrance Owens rushed 14 yards to the end zone with 1:14 remaining in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl at Ford Field Dec. 26. Beckman and Co. decided to go for the two-point conversion, and Owens completed his pass to sophomore wide receiver Eric Page as Toledo took a 32-31 lead. Then the improbable happened.
With the Rockets’ defense forcing Florida International into fourth-and-17 from its’ own 41-yard line, the Panthers pulled out the hook-and-ladder, T.Y. Hilton was ruled to have reached the first down marker before stepping out of bounds after the play was reviewed, and Jack Griffin kicked the game-winning 34-yard field goal four plays later as time expired for the 34-32 final and his school’s first bowl victory.
“We’re going to go for two points,” Beckman said. “We talked about it even prior to that touchdown drive that we were going to go for two points and win the football game. The squib kick wasn’t quite as good as we wanted it.
“We’ve had blunders in the kicking game all year, and it came back to hurt us.”
The Rockets (8-5, 7-1 Mid-American Conference) led 24-7 with 9:44 left to play in the third quarter, but Hilton’s ensuing 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown twelve seconds later ignited a fire on the Florida International sideline, and the Panthers (7-6, 6-2 Sun Belt Conference) went on to outscore Toledo 27-8 the rest of the way for the victory.
“I figured it was the key moment, but I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the guys on the kickoff return team for picking up their guys and leaving me with one or two guys to beat with my speed,” Hilton said. “I know if I get around the corner, it’s just a wrap.”
Hilton was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after picking up 210 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. Junior running back Adonis Thomas led the Rockets with a game-high and career-best 193 yards on 24 carries with two touchdowns. Page finished with 130 all-purpose yards, but was limited to just 24 receiving yards on five catches. Owens completed 15 of his 27 attempts for 132 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions, also picking up 65 yards on 10 carries with a rushing touchdown for Toledo.
“The game of football is not one play,” Beckman said. “It never is one play; it’s a bunch of plays. They made more plays than we did—on special teams, on defense and on offense. That’s why they won that football game, and the credit’s got to go to them for making those plays and the Rockets not making the plays.”
In the first quarter, the Rockets got on the board on their second possession of the game after a four-yard touchdown run from Thomas capped a five-play, 36-yard drive and gave Toledo a 7-0 lead at the 5:40 mark. While Thomas fumbled on the Rockets’ ensuing possession following a hit from Chuck Grace to give the ball back to the Panthers at their own 31-yard line with 2:46 on the clock, Toledo was able to escape the first quarter with the seven-point advantage and Thomas closed out the first 15 minutes averaging 8.8 yards per carry. He continued to provide the spark for the Rockets’ offense in the second quarter, reeling off a career-long 87 yard run all the way to paydirt at the 10:45 mark to put Toledo up 14-0.
However, Florida International bounced right back on their next possession as Darriet Perry scampered 74 yards on first down to set up the Panthers in the red zone on the Rockets’ 13-yard line. Seven plays later, Perry rumbled in from one-yard out to make it 14-7 with 6:25 remaining in the half. Toledo countered with an eight-play, 63-yard drive capped by a 10-yard strike from Owens to junior tight end Danny Noble that put the Rockets back up by 14, the score 21-7 at the 2:56 mark. The Toledo defense stopped the Panthers on fourth down on their next drive and went into halftime with the 21-7 lead.
In the third quarter, Toledo continued to extend its’ lead as junior kicker Bill Claus capped an 11-play, 38-yard opening drive with a 29-yard field goal to make it 24-7 with 9:44 on the board. Hilton responded with a Little Caesars Pizza Bowl record 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown as he went untouched to the end zone 12 seconds later to pull Florida International back within 10, the score 24-14 at the 9:32 mark. On the Rockets’ ensuing possession, Owens’ pass intended for Noble was picked off by Kreg Brown, and Brown returned his interception 11 yards to the Toledo 23-yard line. Three plays later, Perry scored his second touchdown of the game from seven yards out to make it 24-21 with 6:45 left to play in the third.
With 12 seconds left in the quarter, Owens was intercepted again—this time by Junior Mertile—and the Panthers again set up shop in Toledo territory on the Rockets’ 41-yard line following Mertile’s six-yard return as Florida International took the momentum heading into the fourth quarter. That momentum took a temporary shift at the 12:12 mark when Wes Carroll’s pass down the left sideline was picked off by senior cornerback and Rogers graduate Myshan Veasley-Pettis at the three-yard line. However, Owens was again intercepted by Brown on the Rockets next possession, and Brown returned his pick 16 yards to the Rockets’ 37-yard line with 8:43 left.
Three plays later, Carroll found Hilton open on the right side, and Hilton ran the rest of the way for the 10-yard touchdown to give the Panthers a 28-24 lead at the 7:34 mark. With 5:21 left, Wayne Times blocked Claus’ punt attempt and Jon Faucher returned it 11 yards to the Toledo 19-yard line. Four plays later, Griffin kicked a 31-yard field goal to extend Florida International’s lead to 31-24 at the 3:18 mark. Owens redeemed himself on the Rockets ensuing drive after his touchdown and subsequent two-point conversion to Page, but it was not enough as Toledo fell short in its’ first bowl game since 2005.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, senior cornerback Desmond Marrow was happy to have been able to finally compete in a bowl game as a Rocket.
“It feels good to battle back through all that stuff,” Marrow said of coming back from numerous injuries to play again. “The coaches and my teammates believing in me through all the injuries that I’ve had, and just to finish out in a bowl game—I haven’t been to a bowl game since I’ve been at Toledo. It’s a blessing.”