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Published: Saturday, 12/25/2010

Rockets, Panthers will showcase similar styles

DETROIT -- The University of Toledo is no stranger to bowl games, having played in 10 of them since 1969.

Florida International, the Rockets' opponent in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl Sunday night at Ford Field, will be competing in the postseason for the first time in the nine-year history of its program.

And yet, these two teams have many striking similarities -- streaking offenses, resurgent defenses, dynamic playmakers, and even similar school colors -- and can both be considered programs on the rise.

"We're almost parallels in what you see in terms of the programs' direction," FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. "These are two programs that have fought their way into a bowl game this year and are expected to take even a bigger step in the coming years."

UT and FIU's combined record in the four previous seasons to this one is 27-69, but both programs made a huge jump this year.

The Rockets posted an 8-4 overall ledger and earned a bowl bid for the first time since 2005 when they played in the GMAC Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

The Golden Panthers posted the best record in school history at 6-6 and shared the program's first Sun Belt Conference championship with Troy.

"If you watched film of both Toledo and FIU a couple years ago, it's a complete metamorphosis," Cristobal said. "Both places have evolved from a strength and conditioning standpoint, from a recruit standpoint with the types of athletes that are on the field, and I think if you look at both schools academically as well, both coaches emphasize the academic side of it.

"It's a collision of two programs who are scratching and clawing to work their way onto the national scene."

In the midst of their rebuilding efforts, both teams have developed a mini-rivalry over the last two-plus years.

FIU walloped the Rockets 35-16 at the Glass Bowl in 2008, then UT returned the favor last year in Miami by a 41-31 margin that was only close because of two late touchdowns from the Golden Panthers.

"It's great to see them for the third time, and I guess this is the grudge match since we each have one win," UT coach Tim Beckman said. "It should be one heckuva football game."

Adding to the intrigue, the teams will rely on two of the most explosive players in all of college football: FIU's T.Y. Hilton and UT's Eric Page.

Both players are nearly identical in physical stature -- both are listed at 5-10 and about 180 pounds -- and both excel as wide receivers and kick/punt returners.

"Page is awesome," FIU linebacker Toronto Smith said, "and we're real blessed to have one of those on our team. They're both very fast, both very explosive, electrifying players."

Page, who was recognized as a first-team All-American by the Walter Camp Foundation and Sporting News earlier this month as a return specialist, has 94 catches and 1,081 receiving yards to go with his nation-leading three kickoff returns for touchdowns this season.

T.Y. Hilton broke away for a touchdown when Florida International beat the Rockets 35-16 at the Glass Bowl in 2008. T.Y. Hilton broke away for a touchdown when Florida International beat the Rockets 35-16 at the Glass Bowl in 2008.
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Hilton, the 2010 Sun Belt player of the year, leads FIU with 56 catches for 816 receiving yards and has one kickoff return for a touchdown this year. He's also rushed for 278 yards and four touchdowns.

"You have to respect him," UT senior cornerback Desmond Marrow said. "You can't go in there with the attitude that we're going to kill him and dominate."

This game has been billed as a potential high-scoring shootout, with both teams averaging more than 33 points per game in the second half of the season.

But Toledo and FIU also tout two revitalized defenses. The Golden Panthers were first in the Sun Belt in scoring defense and total defense this season, and the Rockets are tied for first nationally with 33 takeaways.

"We're just going to have to come out and play 60 minutes of football and prove everybody wrong that it's not going to be a shootout between both offenses," UT senior linebacker Archie Donald said. "We're planning on going out there and playing solid defensively."

Contact Zach Silka at: zsilka@theblade.com or 419-724-6084.



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