FIU comes up short in 20-10 loss to Marshall
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)
Florida International coach Mario Cristobal expected special teams would be the deciding factor in his team's final game of the season. Turns out it was a key factor in a tough defeat.
A blocked punt midway through the fourth quarter set up Marshall's go-ahead field goal and Rakeem Cato threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns to help the Thundering Herd beat Florida International 20-10 in the Beef `O' Brady's Bowl on Tuesday night.
Cato threw TD passes of 31 and 35 yards to Aaron Dobson, the latter putting the game away in the closing seconds. Warner's 39-yard field goal set up by a blocked punt snapped a 10-10 with 5:16 remaining.
''When a game is tough like that, and it's real tight like that, special teams become a critical part of it,'' Cristobal said. ''Certainly, they made the play on special teams that changed the game a lot to get a field goal with a blocked punt. At the end, of course, the extra seven points is what made it the final score, but those three points were critical.''
Marshall (7-6) overcame a slow start to win five of its last seven games and avoid a losing record in its second season under coach Doc Holliday.
FIU (8-5) was denied a school-record ninth victory and there was speculation that Cristobal may be a leading candidate to fill a job opening at Pittsburgh.
Cato, a freshman from Miami who is one of 28 players on Marshall's roster recruited from the state of Florida, completed 27 of 39 passes and was intercepted once. Dobson had seven receptions for 81 yards, including a TD catch that wiped out a 10-3 FIU lead just before halftime.
All-purpose threat T.Y. Hilton scored on a 2-yard run for FIU, which also got a 46-yard field goal from Jack Griffin. Hilton had eight catches for 88 yards, ran for 22 yards on three carries and returned two kickoffs for 36 yards, but quarterback Wesley Carroll had difficulty getting the ball to him in open space in the second half.
''It hurts a lot. I was trying to go out with a bang,'' Hilton said. ''Unfortunately it didn't happen tonight. I just played to make plays. I came up short for the program tonight. I wish I could have did more, we just ran out of time.''
Carroll was 19 of 29 passing for 150 yards.
Marshall struggled early against a tough schedule, losing in September to West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia Tech before regrouping late to win four of six down the stretch to become bowl eligible and finish second behind Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA East Division standings.
FIU is a relative newcomer to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Panthers launched their program in 2002, joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2005 and has made steady progress in five seasons under Cristobal, who led the school to its first Sun Belt championship a year ago.
''The program has come a long ways,'' Hilton said. ''Look where we're at now. With eight wins, it means a lot.''
Hilton has been a big part of that success, setting FIU and Sun Belt records for career receiving and all-purpose yards. The senior from Miami caught a TD pass and scored on an 89-yard kickoff return to help the Panthers beat Toledo in last year's Little Caesars Bowl, and FIU showcased his versatility early against Marshall.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound receiver took a handoff on FIU's first play from scrimmage and ran for 20 yards before fumbling 5 yards backward. He had a 17-yard reception on the next play, then later in the opening quarter gained 14 yards on a catch-and-run to the Marshall 2.
Hilton scored his first rushing touchdown of the season on the next play, giving the Panthers a 7-3 lead.
''This young man is the best I've ever been around,'' Cristobal said. ''So many times he's done a great job putting the team on his back. He was the face of the program. He will be missed, dearly. We're going to have fun watching him on Sundays.''
Marshall punter Kase Whitehead averaged 40.1 yards on seven punts, and his high kicks never gave the explosive Hilton a chance for a return.
''Their punter is a great punter,'' Hilton said. ''They did a great job covering that. They forced me to play catch.''
Marshall answered Jack Griffin's 46-yard field goal that put FIU up 10-3 with a six-play, 55-yard drive that Cato finished with his 31-yard TD pass to Aaron Dobson to make it 10-10 with 23 seconds left in the first half.
Neither team was able to generate much offense in the third and fourth quarters. Zach Dunston blocked a punt to set up Warner's go-ahead field goal, and Cato began the clinching drive from his own 40 after FIU fumbled.
FIU linebacker Jordan Hunt had 13 solo tackles and one sack.