Florida International ready for bowl game

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DETROIT (AP) - For Florida International, a bowl victory would cap off a fast rise.

In its sixth season in the Football Bowl Subdivision and four years after a winless season, Florida International will take on Toledo in Sunday’s Little Caesar’s Bowl.

A win would give the program its first winning record.

“This is a great Christmas present and a phenomenal opportunity,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “It’s certainly the validation of a lot of hard work.”

Cristobal took over from Don Strock after an ugly 2006 season that included a 0-12 record, the famous brawl with the crosstown Miami Hurricanes and sanctions that cost the program scholarships and players.

“You are looking at a group of seniors who came into absolutely nothing,” Cristobal said. “A winless team with no facility, nowhere to work out _ we didn’t even have a place to watch film. Now, all of a sudden at the end of their senior year, they find themselves as conference champions with a chance to play in a bowl game on national television.”

If the Golden Panthers (6-6) want to finish with their first winning record, they will need a big game from their offense led by Sun Belt Player of the Year T.Y. Hilton.

Hilton finished the season with 56 catches for 816 yards and four touchdowns receiving. He rushed for four more scores and also returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

“T.Y. Hilton is one of those kids where we are going to have to know where he is on every play,” Toledo coach Tim Beckham said. “He’s going to be catching a lot of passes, but they will also use him out of the backfield, and he’s going to be returning kickoffs and punts.

“He might even throw the ball, and he’s capable of a big play in any of those situations.”

Hilton thinks the national exposure will be good for his school.

“This is all new and exciting for us,” the junior said. “We want people to see that we’ve got an exciting program, and one that is up and coming.”

Cristobal agrees that the game will help Florida International’s recruiting efforts.

“Recruiting has always been the lifeline of our program, but when we arrived, we were trying to sell a 0-12 program that still had to build facilities,” he said. “Now we have the facilities, we have a team graduating student-athletes at a very high level and doing extremely well academically. We’ve won a championship and we’re going to a bowl game. That’s opening doors to a higher level of recruit.”

Still, things will get better if Hilton, quarterback Wes Carroll (2,483 yards passing, 15 touchdowns) and fellow receiver Greg Ellingson (36 catches for 546 yards and five touchdowns) can lead the Golden Panthers to an upset victory over Toledo (8-4) at Ford Field.

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