Most Interesting Modern Group of Five Champions: 2010 FIU

During the off-season, Forgotten Five has decided to do some research. We launched a multi-part series looking at some of the Group of Five’s most unique conference champions.

Teams such as Boise’s great teams, the 2004 and 2008 Utah teams, and Hawaii’s 2007 team receive so much attention as the Group of Five’s greatest teams in recent memory. Forgotten are the teams that had dream seasons or overcame odd circumstances but did not have a major bowl to show for it. This series tells their tales.

October 14, 2006.

An infamous day in FIU football’s short history and what some might consider their low point. In the midst of a winless season, FIU and Miami engaged in a brawl that would link the two schools forever. After the fisticuffs ended, the Sun Belt suspended 18 FIU players, with two more getting kicked off the team.

The Panthers went 9-32 after the brawl with the lowest points being a 1-23 stretch in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Overall, since the program’s inception in 2002, they had never recorded a winning season, with their best seasons being five-win years in 2002, 2005, and 2008.

Heading into 2010, there was little reason for optimism after a 3-9 finish the year before. Yet, 2010 would be a season of resurrection for many reasons.

Playing the Gauntlet

The Panthers began the season with a brutal stretch of Rutgers, Texas A&M, Maryland, and Pittsburgh. For the most part, they were competitive.

  • They led Rutgers 14-13 in the fourth quarter before losing 19-14
  • They opened up a 20-6 lead versus Texas A&M before losing 27-20
  • They were within a touchdown of Maryland until the last four minutes
  • The lone blowout was a 44-17 loss to Pitt

After stumbling out of their non-conference slate, FIU got back on track with two straight wins in conference play. The first was an underwhelming 28-21 win against a Western Kentucky squad that went winless the year before and a 34-10 win over North Texas followed.

A 21-9 loss in the Shula Bowl to FAU stopped the Panthers’ momentum as they lost to a team that finished 4-8 on the year. At 2-5, FIU was at a crossroads, struggling to salvage their season.

Two Stars, Two Different Paths

Two stars, both with unlikely paths to FIU, led the way for the Panthers. T.Y. Hilton was a highly touted recruit whose final two choices when he signed in 2008 were post-Fiesta-Bowl West Virginia and FIU, who went 1-23 in their last 24 games.

T.Y.’s young son chose FIU, and the program got its first bona-fide star. Hilton made an immediate impact, averaging over 24 yards per catch and gaining over 2000 all-purpose yards in his freshman year.

The other star took a less direct path. Wesley Carroll was once the future of Mississippi State after leading the team to wins over #14 (!) Kentucky and Alabama and Liberty Bowl victory.

The next year, he fell out of favor completing 48% of his pass with a 3-7 TD-to-INT ratio. In addition, he was the losing quarterback of the infamous 3-2 Auburn-MSU game that year. He transferred at years’ end and landed at FIU.

A Tale of Two Halves

FIU began the second half of their season with a 42-35 win over Louisiana-Monroe where Hilton lead the way with 291 all-purpose yards and a receiving and kick return touchdown. Carroll threw for 227 and three scores.

The following week against Troy, Hilton added 261 more all-purpose yards, with 158 coming on the ground on only six carries, as he was one of three FIU players to exceed the century mark on the ground. Carroll added an efficient 220 passing yards and three touchdowns on 8-15 passing to the Panthers’ 448 rushing yards.

Against Louisiana, others picked up the slack as Hilton only amassed 74 all-purpose yards. Dariet Perry ran for three touchdowns and Carroll went 16-19 with a touchdown pass in a 38-17 win.

Suddenly, the Panthers were 5-5 and needing a win to become bowl eligible for the first time with Arkansas State in the way. After an off-week, Hilton caught fire again with 237 all-purpose yards, including 140 receiving yards on 11 catches.

Despite Hilton’s efforts, Arkansas State held a 24-20 lead in the fourth quarter. Luckily Carroll had some late-game heroics left in him, connecting with Hilton on a 42-yard touchdown pass with 1:42 left to take a 31-24 lead that stood for the rest of the game.

The comeback hearkened back to his performance in the 2007 Egg Bowl where he led Mississippi State from 14-0 4th quarter deficit and on a last-minute drive to send them to the Liberty Bowl.

The following week, FIU blew their chance at an outright Sun Belt title with a 28-27 loss to Middle Tennessee. However, they were still bowl-eligible for the first time ever, and had their first shared conference title.

First Time Bowlers

The Big Ten sending Ohio State and Wisconsin to the BCS opened up a spot in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl for FIU, where they would play Toledo. The Motor City-turned-Pizza Bowl had become a home for Sun Belt schools with Middle Tennessee appearing in 2006, and FAU appearing in 2007.

Things could not have started worse for the Panthers as the Rockets raced to a 24-7 lead. However, like they had all season, FIU came alive in the second half, scoring 21 unanswered, sparked by an 89-yard Hilton kick return TD. The lead was short lived, as a Toledo touchdown and two-point conversion gave the Rockets a 32-31 lead with 1:14 left.

There is a reason Yogi Berra once said “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Facing 4th and 17 with 50 seconds to go, FIU’s hopes looked dead when Carroll completed a short pass up the middle to Jacob Younger…that is until he lateraled it to T.Y. Hilton on a hook-and-ladder play Boise State would’ve been proud of. Hilton gained the necessary yardage and a few plays later, the stage was set for Jack Griffin to attempt the biggest kick in FIU’s young history.

(It is truly a shame there’s not better video of the trick play)

Griffin was true from 34 yards as time expired and FIU had won its first ever bowl game as well as gained its first winning record. The unlikely season was complete with one of the most movie-like endings imaginable.

FIU’s 2010 season proves that resurrection is possible whether you’re a program embarrassed on the national stage or a quarterback looking for a second chance. These Panthers proved that it’s never too late to get back to the top.

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