Florida International 34, Toledo 32. The first 59 minutes of the Little Caesars Bowl had already featured two touchdowns in excess of 85 yards; another run covering 74 yards; big plays by players named "Adonis" and "Cheeseborough"; a blocked punt; a late rally by Florida International that turned a 24-7 deficit in the third quarter into a 31-24 advantage in the fourth; and finally, a sustained Toledo touchdown drive that the Rockets capped with a bold two-point conversion to retake the lead, 32-31, with 1:20 to play. By the standards of minor bowl games, it had more than fulfilled the ham quotient (or canadian bacon, as it were) for the night.
At that point, with the clock winding under a minute, FIU's last-gasp, 4th-and-17 conversion on a Boise-esque hook-and-ladder to star receiver T.Y. Hilton – the play, coach Mario Cristobal noted after the game, is even called "Boise" – was extra cheese. Hilton's tightrope lunge past the first down marker with 42 seconds on the clock kept the Panthers alive for kicker Jack Griffin's 34-yard game-winner on the final snap, the stamp on the best finish of the first week of the postseason and arguably the biggest win in the seven-year existence of the program.
At the very least, it validated FIU's transformation from winless laughingstock to Sun Belt overlord under Cristobal, who inherited a team that had staggered to an 0-12 finish under Don Strock in 2006. By the start of Cristobal's first season, FIU faced multiple penalties (including scholarship losses) for consistently falling short of NCAA academic benchmarks and fielding ineligible players, and was best known by far for throwing down with Miami in a bench-clearing, helmet-swinging Orange Bowl brawl that resulted in a tidal wave of suspensions in 2006. The Panthers proceeded to lose their first 11 on Cristobal's watch in 2007, before finally snapping a 23-game skid against North Texas in the season finale.
Three years later, Griffin's kick wrapped up the Panthers' first bowl win and first winning season (7-6), on the heels of their first four-game winning streak and first conference championship in the regular season. When that's the peak of your reality, triumph in the Pizza Bowl qualifies as a significant breakthrough, even if you do happened to get outgained by 128 yards in the process. It's also a signal that your young head coach has acquired a large target on his back from bigger schools – that is, schools that can actually afford to field a band and cheerleaders alongside the team – that might find themselves in need of a similar turnaround at some point in the near future. That's life as a stepping stone, but it beats the alternative.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.