The Beef O' Brady Bowl usually features a team from the Big East Conference and the Conference USA, unless one conference does not have enough bowl eligible teams. That was the case for the first time ever as this year, as the Panthers will be representing the Sun Belt Conference while Marshall hails from the regular participant Conference USA. The bowl is just one of three that is played in a stadium designed for baseball.
This will be the first meeting on the gridiron between Marshall and FIU.
Marshall clinched bowl eligibility by defeating East Carolina in overtime in its season finale. The Thundering Herd had one of the toughest schedules in the nation this season. Although the team finished the regular season with a 6-6 record, the powers that be are pleased with its team's effort this season.
"A fourth of our players are from Florida -- maybe even more. So, it's a chance for them to go home and play. It's a chance to reward them. It's a chance to reward their families who can come to the game and see them play. For this team to go 6-6 with the quality of schedule it had, I think that's an outstanding accomplishment," said Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick.
The Panthers are just as excited as the Thundering Herd to still be playing in December.
"These last couple of seasons have been an historic run for us," FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. "The opportunity to continue to play into December, in our home state is an honor and a privilege." The Panthers won in its last three outings to finish the regular season with an 8-4 record.
FIU has a star in T.Y. Hilton. The senior wideout caught 64 passes for 950 yards this year despite dealing with injuries along the way. Hilton was the favorite target of senior quarterback Wesley Carroll throughout the year. Carroll passed for 2,224 yards and 14 touchdowns with only four interceptions. Carroll has not thrown an interception in three games, and has had the luxury of one of the better pass-blocking units in the nation, as FIU is only allowing 1.1 sacks per game.
Kendrick Rhodes, who is still not 100 percent recovered from an ankle injury sustained in the season finale, is also a key for the Panthers. Rhodes racked up 1,121 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground this year. If his ankle proves to be an issue, Darriet Perry is a serviceable backup.
FIU has a very talented, athletic, and aggressive defense. The Panthers are ranked 16th in the nation in scoring defense with just 19.4 points allowed per game. FIU was ranked in the top three in every defensive category in its conference, and led the Sun Belt in sacks per game with 3.6 per contest. Winston Fraser is the leader of the defense with 107 total tackles.
One of the players on Marshall's roster that is happy about the trip to Florida is freshman quarterback Rakeem Cato. The Miami Central High graduate will be making a return to his home state due to his connection on 23-of-29 attempts for 341 yards in the win over East Carolina.
Cato started eight games this season and had a 125.23 pass efficiency rating while throwing 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Cato split time as the Thundering Herd's signal caller with A.J. Graham before the sophomore scrambler went down with a season ending injury. The duo combined to lead Doc Holliday's team to an unimpressive 335.3 yards of total offense per game, which ranked 101st in the nation. If Cato goes down with injury, wide receiver Jermaine Kelson is the emergency backup.
Cato has a few weapons on the offense which will be key factors against FIU. Tron Martinez is a solid running back who racked up 591 yards on the ground this season. Aaron Dobson made a name for himself with a highlight reel touchdown grab against East Carolina. The 6-3 wideout led the team in receiving this season and will need to be a threat downfield for Marshall to be successful.
The Thundering Herd's defense is anchored by the Conference USA's Defensive Player of the Year and Second Team All-American Vinny Curry. The senior pass rusher is virtually unstoppable off the edge, as he recorded 11 sacks this season, the sixth most in the nation. Even with the dominant lineman, Marshall's defense allowed 417.8 yards of total offense and 30.2 points per game.