Detroit may not be the most exotic locale for a bowl game, but Toledo and Florida International are thrilled to be making the trip.
The Rockets return to postseason play for the first time in five years in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl against FIU, which will be making the first bowl appearance in its history Sunday night.
Toledo (8-4) appeared in this bowl -- formerly the Motor City Bowl -- three times in the last decade, but has not played in any postseason game since a 45-13 victory over UTEP in the 2005 GMAC Bowl.
The Rockets, who had lost 16 games over the previous two seasons, improved dramatically this year under second-year coach Tim Beckman. They finished second in the West Division of the Mid-American Conference, and three of their losses were to teams also playing in bowls -- Boise State, Northern Illinois and Arizona.
"Playing in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl is a great reward for our players, especially the seniors, who have worked very hard this season and are deserving of a bowl of this stature and reputation," Beckman said. "We also look forward to playing a very tough FIU team, with whom many of our players and coaches are very familiar, having played them in 2008 and 2009."
The road team won both previous meetings between these schools. The Rockets prevailed 41-31 last season, repaying the Golden Panthers (6-6) for a 35-16 defeat in 2008.
While reaching this bowl is a great reward for Toledo, it's a remarkable achievement for FIU, which is in just its ninth season of play at any level and sixth year in the FBS. The Golden Panthers' six wins this season comprise one-fifth of their 30 victories all-time.
They claimed a share of the Sun Belt Conference championship with Troy, which they beat 52-35 Nov. 13 on the road.
"In just nine seasons, our team has become nationally competitive," FIU President Mark Rosenberg said. "Our journey to Detroit represents the story of a university whose tradition has always been to turn the impossible into the inevitable."
The Golden Panthers hit their stride down the stretch, averaging 38.0 points while winning four of their final five games. Their offense leans heavily on a pair of running backs, junior Darriet Perry (707 yards and 14 TDs in 2010) and sophomore Darrian Mallary (669 yards, two TDs). Quarterback Wesley Carroll, a transfer who played two years at Mississippi State, completed 61.8 percent of his passes for 2,483 yards with 15 TDs and 13 interceptions.
Carroll will need to be careful against Toledo's opportunistic defense. The Rockets forced 33 turnovers in 2010, tied with Hawaii for the most in the nation. However, if an offense holds onto the ball it can solve Toledo. The Rockets allowed an average of 45.8 points in their four losses, and were 1-4 when forcing fewer than three turnovers.
Toledo lost starting quarterback Austin Dantin to a shoulder injury during an Oct. 30 victory over Eastern Michigan, but continued to play well with replacement Terrance Owens. A redshirt freshman, Owens has thrown 12 touchdown passes and only two interceptions.
Owens will look to get the ball to sophomore wideout Eric Page, who had 94 receptions for 1,081 yards and eight TDs this season. The explosive Page also scored three touchdowns on kickoff returns.
Toledo has won eight of its last 10 bowl games, but two of those losses came in the Motor City Bowl -- in 2002 to Boston College and to Connecticut in 2004.
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Few expected Toledo or Florida International to make a bowl game, but Tim Beckman and Mario Cristobal had other ideas. Beckman revived a former MAC power in Toledo, which went 7-1 in league play. This fall, Cristobal orchestrated college football's most impressive building job at Florida International, which had gone 9-39 in the past four seasons. -- Adam Rittenberg