F.I.U. increasing its visibility

Florida International is trying to cap its best season with just its second bowl victory. Only a dramatic touchdown in the regular-season finale allowed Marshall to even qualify.

The Golden Panthers look to continue increasing their visibility as a program on the rise when they face the Thundering Herd for the first time in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Tuesday night.

Most sports books monitored by SportsOptions have installed Florida International as four-point favorites, with the total set at 48.

FIU (8-4) already has its highest single-season win total since the start of its football program in 2002, getting one more than last year when the team beat Toledo 34-32 in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

The Golden Panthers were considered a doormat when coach Mario Cristobal arrived in 2007, going 1-11 after losing all 12 games a year earlier.

Now, back-to-back winning seasons have them gaining confidence with the program headed in the right direction.

“At 8-4, we don’t only have the best record in FIU history, we have the best record in the state of Florida,” athletic director Pete Garcia said while taking a jab at traditional powers Florida, Florida State and Miami. “It’s a natural step for this football team to go back to a second straight bowl game.”

FIU enters the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl averaging 33.3 points during a three-game win streak, nearly 10.0 more points than its first nine games of the season.

A balanced offensive scheme has been key to the Golden Panthers’ success.

Wesley Carroll has thrown 14 touchdowns with just four interceptions, and has five with no picks over the last two games.

He’ll attempt to cap his collegiate career with another bowl victory after coming up with a clutch performance last year. He completed 16 of 27 passes for 140 yards before leading the Golden Panthers down the field to set up Jack Griffin’s game-winning 34-yard field goal as time expired.

Carroll also converted a 4th-and-17 during the final drive, hitting Jacob Younger, who flipped the ball to T.Y. Hilton for the first down.

Hilton is FIU’s top receiver, and holds the school career records for catches (221), receiving yards (3,443), touchdowns (24) and overall scores (36).

The senior hauled in 64 passes for 950 yards with seven TDs this season, ranking among Sun Belt Conference leaders in each category.

On the ground, the Golden Panthers rely on Kedrick Rhodes, who became their first 1,000-yard rusher since they moved to the FBS in 2005. The sophomore had 1,121 rushing yards with eight touchdowns.

While FIU put together a strong season from the start, Marshall (6-6) is trying to cap an impressive turnaround.

The Thundering Herd won four of their final six to become bowl eligible for the first time under second-year coach Doc Holliday.

In fact, they didn’t gain that status until Tron Martinez’s 1-yard run in overtime clinched a 34-27 win over East Carolina in the regular-season finale Nov. 26.

Marshall finished second in Conference USA’s East Division, one game back of No. 22 Southern Mississippi. Holliday feels the team is improving, but he’s not happy with falling short of the conference title game.

“I can see us growing up defensively and the one thing we had to do was tackle,” he said. “There is no doubt in my mind that we’ve made significant progress.

“We’re not where we want to be. Our goal is always to win the Conference (USA) championship. We didn’t do it this year, either. We’re getting closer, but we won’t be satisfied until we get to that game.”

The Thundering Herd forced 28 turnovers, ranking second to Memphis’ 30 in the conference. The unit is led by defensive end Vinny Curry, the 2011 C-USA Defensive Player of the Year.

Curry leads the team with 11 sacks, six forced fumbles, 21 tackles for loss and three blocked kicks.

He’s joined on the All-Conference USA first team by safety Omar Brown, who had four interceptions with one returned 48 yards for a TD in a 59-14 rout of UAB on Oct. 29.

Quarterback Rakeem Cato is trying to conclude his freshman season with another stellar performance after he was 23 of 29 for 341 yards and two touchdowns against East Carolina.

Aaron Dobson has 10 TD passes, doubling his previous career high set last season. The junior had 42 catches for 587 yards after his four receptions in the regular-season finale went for 110 yards and two scores.

Marshall last reached a bowl in 2009, beating Ohio in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.