DETROIT – Jacob Younger caught the pass near midfield, flipped the ball to his team's top player and hoped for the best.
T.Y. Hilton took the lateral and dashed toward the sideline, trying to reach the first-down marker and keep Florida International's final drive alive.
"Obviously we thought he didn't get it," Toledo coach Tim Beckman said. "But it's not my call to make."
The officials ruled Hilton reached the marker before stepping out of bounds, giving FIU an improbable conversion on fourth-and-17. Moments later, Jack Griffin's 34-yard field goal as time ran out gave the Golden Panthers a delirious 34-32 victory Sunday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
"What these men have achieved is historical," said FIU coach Mario Cristobal, whose program was playing in its first bowl. "They've set the bar high for the guys who will come later."
And this game set the bar high for the many bowls still to come this season. It featured two wild comebacks by FIU in the second half alone, the second of which came after Toledo took a one-point lead on a touchdown and a 2-point conversion with 1:14 remaining.
Add in FIU's frantic hook-and-lateral, and it was quite a debut on the big stage for a program in only its ninth season. FIU made the transition to what is now called the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2005.
The team has seldom had a chance to celebrate like this. Three years ago, FIU finally snapped a 23-game losing streak, and the program also had to deal with the fallout from a 2006 brawl against Miami.
Earlier this year, the Panthers dealt with tragedy after running back Kendall Berry was stabbed to death on campus.
"It means so much to me and my class," junior Darriet Perry said. "I believed in coach when he told me we'd go to a bowl and here it is. There were a lot of hard times, a lot of ups and downs, we lost a teammate. Everybody came in and stuck it out."
Now, the program once known for a long losing streak has a perfect record in bowls.
The Panthers trailed 24-7 in the third quarter before Hilton returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. FIU (7-6) went on to score 24 straight points, taking a 28-24 lead on Hilton's 10-yard touchdown catch and adding a field goal with 3:18 remaining.
Terrance Owens, who had thrown three interceptions in the second half, patiently led Toledo (8-5) back on a 62-yard drive that ended when he kept the ball himself for a 14-yard touchdown run. When the Rockets decided to go for two, Owens found Eric Page on a slant pattern to put them ahead.
It appeared Toledo had pulled the game out, to the delight of many of the 32,431 in attendance. Toledo is about an hour from Detroit and had plenty of fans at Ford Field.
But after taking a 32-31 lead, the Rockets tried a squib kick to keep the ball away from Hilton. FIU ended up taking over near midfield.
"The squib kick wasn't what we wanted," Beckman said. "We didn't want it in the middle of the field, we wanted it more toward the sideline."
Although a sack knocked FIU back, the Panthers had one trick play left. The initial ruling was that Hilton had gotten the first down, and the officials didn't overturn it after a replay review, putting the ball at the Toledo 42.
"We run it every day," Hilton said. "Different guys in different positions."
This was different, though.
"That was the prettiest one of all," Cristobal said.
Wes Carroll then found Greg Ellingson for a 20-yard pass that put the Panthers firmly in field goal range.
Much of the pregame anticipation surrounded Page and Hilton, two shifty wide receivers who also are dangerous return men. Page set up an early touchdown with a 21-yard punt return and nearly won the game for Toledo with his late 2-point conversion. Hilton scored two touchdowns — and his biggest play was nowhere near the end zone.
The win gave the Sun Belt Conference bragging rights over the Mid-American Conference. The leagues are matched up in three bowls this season, but the Sun Belt has already won the first two.
This was also a rubber match of sorts between FIU and Toledo after the teams split games in 2008 and 2009.
Perry ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns for the Panthers.
Adonis Thomas rushed for a career-high 193 yards and two touchdowns for the Rockets, including an 87-yard touchdown run as Toledo built a 21-7 halftime lead — long before anyone realized what an enthralling game this would become.
"We got so excited we couldn't settle down in the first half," Hilton said. "We were better in the second half. We played FIU football."