DETROIT – Nearly five months ago from his perch in the press box at Ford Field during Mid-American Conference media day, University of Toledo coach Tim Beckman stood side-by-side with two his players and instructed them to envision what it would be like playing on the field down below.
Beckman was of course referring to Toledo earning a spot in the MAC championship game earlier this month, but after just missing out on that goal, the Rockets stepped onto the playing surface at Ford Field for their first practice Thursday leading up to Sunday's matchup with Florida International in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
"It's been in my head ever since we came here," said sophomore wide receiver Eric Page, who along with senior linebacker Archie Donald joined Beckman for MAC media day at the end of July.
"We were hoping we'd be here for the MAC championship. I never imagined we'd go to a bowl game here, but it feels great to be here," Page added.
Beckman admitted his players had a little more "spunk" for Thursday's practice than they normally would for a workout back home at the Glass Bowl or the Fetterman Training Center.
"This is what we've talked and dreamed about," Beckman said. "This gives us a little taste of where we need to be on December 2, 2011 [for next year's MAC championship game]. And I think playing here is what every kid dreams about. If you're playing Division I college football, you want to try and make the NFL. Well, here it is."
UT will practice at Ford Field again Friday and then have a walk-through practice Saturday.
Beyond that, the Rockets hope to make several return trips to the Motor City.
"Coach has been telling the team that this is where we want to be," Page said. "Everybody is just taking it in right now, and next year we'll hopefully come back here for the MAC championship game."
FIU is experiencing the postseason for the first time in school history after starting a football program in 2002 and joining Division I-A, now the Football Bowl Subdivision, in 2005.
"It's been a goal since day one," said FIU coach Mario Cristobal, who is in fourth year at the school. "A lot of these guys have put in three-and-a-half, almost four, years of work to get to this point."
The Golden Panthers, who were scheduled to practice right after Toledo but ended up arriving two hours late because they were tardy getting to the airport, had similar first impressions of Ford Field as the Rockets upon finally reaching their destination.
"When you pull up at our stadium back home, you walk right into the locker room. But when you pull up here, you walk about two miles before you get to that locker room," Cristobal joked. "When guys walk out here and see the beautiful facility they'll be playing in on national TV, I think those words ‘high definition' start to sink in."
For some FIU players, like senior linebacker Toronto Smith, it was their first time seeing snow when their charter flight landed in Michigan.
"It looked nice, and then I got outside," said Smith, a native of Tallahassee. "It was too cold and I wanted to get back in the airplane. I didn't want to be out here in the cold. But you know, I'm blessed to be here and I'm glad we got the opportunity to come play in Detroit. I'm very thankful that the Little Caesars Bowl picked us to come play here."
Contact Zach Silka at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6084.