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Fla. International  WR T.Y. Hilton

The Associated Press

Three years ago, one victory was cause for celebration at Florida International. Now, the Golden Panthers are enjoying something much more impressive -- a trip to a bowl. It's a big step forward for a team that's endured embarrassing scenes on the field and tragedy off it.

"It's really one of the best stories in college football,'' head coach Mario Cristobal said. "And I'd be saying it if it wasn't our team.''

Three seasons after ending a 23-game losing streak, FIU will play Toledo in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Sunday night. It's the first bowl appearance for FIU, which is in its sixth season in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

When Cristobal took over as head coach, the Golden Panthers were coming off a winless 2006 season -- and that was hardly their only problem. That year had been marred by an ugly brawl against Miami, where Cristobal had been an assistant. "A month after we took the job we found out they were losing 25 scholarships from the previous regime's infractions,'' Cristobal said. "We knew we'd fall off the face of the earth for a couple of years.''

The Golden Panthers finally ended their losing streak in their final game of 2007, and they appeared to be on the rise when they went 5-7 the following season. Instead, they won only three games in 2009. All those on-field woes were put into perspective in March, when running back Kendall Berry was stabbed to death on campus.

For a program in need of some happy news, this season has been refreshing. After starting with four consecutive losses against a difficult schedule that included trips to Texas A&M and Pittsburgh, FIU went 6-2 in Sun Belt Conference play, finishing tied atop the league with Troy. The reward for FIU (6-6) is a matchup with Toledo (8-4) at Detroit's Ford Field -- not exactly a long trip for the Rockets. Toledo is returning to a bowl for the first time since 2005.

"This is huge for our program,'' Toledo head coach Tim Beckman said. "It means we are getting better as a team, and we only have to travel 65 miles down the road.''

Toledo quarterback Austin Dantin hurt his shoulder in late October, but Terrance Owens has done a good job filling in. The Rockets are dangerous as long as Eric Page is in the lineup. The 5-foot-10 sophomore has caught 94 passes this season and returned three kickoffs for touchdowns.

FIU has its own multidimensional threat. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton caught four touchdown passes this season, ran for four more TDs and scored on a kickoff return.

Toledo would have preferred to make an even earlier visit to Ford Field, but the Rockets finished a game behind Northern Illinois in their division of the Mid-American Conference and missed out on the MAC title game, which was in Detroit. "We wanted to be here on Dec. 3, but we're just going to be here 23 days later,'' Beckman said. "It's great that our kids will get a taste of Ford Field before next year's MAC championship game.''

This is the second time in three years this bowl has brought in a Sun Belt team from Florida. In 2008, Florida Atlantic made the trip and beat Central Michigan, 24-21.

It will also be the third consecutive season Toledo and FIU play each other. The Golden Panthers won at Toledo in September 2008, and the Rockets went on the road and returned the favor last year.

The teams will meet again this weekend, but on a grander stage. It's the type of moment Cristobal envisioned when he first took over. "We thought maybe Year 4 or 5 we'd be competitive,'' he said. "So we're way ahead of schedule.''

Florida International (6-6) vs. Toledo (8-4), 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN

  • Series Record: Tied 1-1.
  • Last Meeting: 2009 -- Toledo 41, FIU 31.

What's at Stake
FIU is in its first bowl, an impressive accomplishment for a program three years removed from the end of a 23-game losing streak. Toledo narrowly missed qualifying for the Mid-American Conference title game and will try to build momentum for next season. There's also the matter of bragging rights between the MAC and the Sun Belt Conference. The leagues are matched up in three bowls this season. Troy already scored one for the Sun Belt with a win against Ohio in the New Orleans Bowl.

Key Matchup
FIU's T.Y. Hilton against Toledo's Eric Page. These two receivers are both dangerous not only as pass catchers but as kick returners. Page has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns this season.

Players to watch
FIU -- RB Darriet Perry has rushed for 707 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. He set the school record for TDs rushing in a season.

Toledo -- QB Terrance Owens has been impressive filling in for Austin Dantin, who hurt his shoulder in late October. Owens has completed 60 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns with two interceptions.

Facts & Figures
Toledo is playing in this bowl for the fourth time, although it was called the Motor City Bowl for the previous three visits. Toledo won in 2001 and lost in 2002 and 2004. ... FIU won six games this season after winning nine between 2006-09. ... This is Toledo's first bowl since 2005. ... Page has caught 94 passes this season for the Rockets. ... FIU offensive coordinator Scott Satterfield previously was a quarterbacks coach at Toledo. ... The Rockets have forced 33 turnovers this season. ... Toledo's 7-1 mark in conference play equaled its best since going 7-0-1 in 1995.