50@50: ‘Motor City Miracle’ helps FIU win its first bowl game


To celebrate the university’s 50th anniversary, FIU News is sharing 50 moments in FIU’s history as part of our “50@50″ series.

There are certain plays teams practice during the season reserved for those moments where the odds are bleak and trickery – or flat-out desperation – is the only option left.

No team ever wants to use them on gameday.

But with less than a minute remaining in FIU football’s first ever bowl game appearance in 2010, the Panthers had no choice but to resort to one of those very plays: the hook-and-ladder.

“There are so many things that have to go perfectly right on that play in order for it to be successful. That’s why no one runs it unless it’s desperation time,” former quarterback Wesley Carroll says with a laugh.

After completing a 6-6 season and becoming co-champions of the Sun Belt Conference under Head Coach Mario Cristobal, the Panthers traveled to Detroit to take on the Toledo Rockets the day after Christmas in the 2010 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

Playing at Ford Field, the Panthers struggled to get their offense going early on in the contest and fell behind 21-7 at halftime. The team received a jolt in the second half beginning with an 89-yard kickoff return by T.Y. Hilton in the third quarter that led to 24 unanswered points and a late FIU lead.

The Rockets, however mustered a touchdown that gave Toledo a 32-31 lead with 1:18 remaining in the game. Now with 50 seconds left on the clock, the Panthers’ entire season came down to whether or not they could gain 17 yards on fourth down from their own 41-yard line.

The Panthers needed a miracle.

Quarterback Wesley Carroll looks for a receiver downfield in the first half against Toledo Rockets.

Quarterback Wesley Carroll looks for a receiver downfield in the first half against Toledo Rockets.

00:50

Carroll and the Panthers offense break out of the huddle and into the shotgun formation, with running back Darriet Perry standing to Carroll’s right and two wide receivers lined up on each side of the offensive line.

The Panthers were going all in on a hook-and-ladder play, where a receiver catches the ball and tosses it laterally to another offensive player running in the opposite direction. It’s goal was two-fold: misdirect the Toledo defense and get the ball in the hands of Hilton.

It was a play FIU had been working on at the end of every Thursday practice.

“On 4th down and 17, you don’t have many other options,” Carroll says.

Hilton added: “I didn’t even go to the huddle during the timeout because I already knew the play that was going to be called.”

Carroll snaps the ball and drops back in the pocket.

 0:49 … 0:48  

As Carroll drops back to throw, the pocket quickly begins to collapse around him as Toledo’s four-man rush attempts to reach Carroll before he can find an open receiver.

Still, Carroll remains calm, steps up in the pocket to avoid the rush and prepares to throw the ball near midfield where he expects receiver Jacob Younger to be.

“I had to throw the ball kind of blindly, but knowing the timing of the play I just had to put the ball at the right place on time,” Carroll recalls.

He rears back his arm, getting partially hit by one of Toledo’s defensive linemen, and releases the ball.

0:47 … 0:46

Wide receiver Jacob Younger makes a great catch with the ball just inches from the turf to help keep the play alive.

Wide receiver Jacob Younger makes a great catch with the ball just inches from the turf to help keep the play alive. Photo by Matt Shaw.

Toledo’s cornerbacks and safeties have dropped back to prevent a deep pass from Carroll to a streaking receiver. The Rockets’ linebackers have done the same, giving room for FIU’s receivers to get open underneath and make a play near the middle of the field.

Younger, who began the play lined up on the outside to Carroll’s right, had a little more than five yards of separation between him and nearest Toledo defensive back when the ball released from Carroll’s hand.

The throw is low and almost bounces in front of Younger for an incomplete pass that would have essentially ended the game. But Younger adjusts, crouching down and reaching across his body to make a difficult catch with the ball just inches above the turf at the FIU 49-yard line.

Younger, however, is in trouble. He has possession of the ball, but his momentum has him stumbling forward in the wrong direction. While Toledo linebackers Archie Donald and Dan Molls begin to move toward the middle of the field to close in on Younger, Hilton streaks across the middle of the field.

“Usually when we run the play in practice I’ll catch it and I’ll have a couple of steps to look up and then pitch it to him,” Younger says. “But in the game, it happened so fast. As soon as I lifted my head, T.Y. was right there and I barely got it to him.”

Younger, as he stumbles, flips the ball backward into T.Y.’s hands at the FIU 45-yard line, quickly regains his balance and gets out of the way. His job is done.

0:45

The ball is in Hilton’s hands.

Toledo’s Donald and Molls are still five yards away when Younger tosses the ball to Hilton and attempts to change direction and tackle Hilton.

But Hilton is too quick. He manages to get around the tacklers and running back-turned-blocker Darriet Perry, who prevents Donald from attempting a diving tackle from behind.

0:44

Hilton, still 10 yards away from a first down, has a lane on the outside that may get him there.

But Hilton doesn’t have any more blockers to protect him and Toledo safety Mark Singer and cornerback Desmond Marrow are now stepping up to close the gap and force Hilton out of bounds before he can reach the Toledo 42-yard line.

Cutting back inside is no option for Hilton, with a host of other defenders there waiting to tackle him well short of a first down. Hilton’s only hope is to somehow rush past Marrow – the defender closest to the sideline – and hope he can stay inbounds long enough to make it to the first down marker.

As Hilton and Marrow converge at the FIU 46-yard line right next to the sidelines, Marrow reaches out with his left arm to try and push Hilton out of bounds, but can only get a partial shove of his shoulder pad.

0:43

T.Y. sideline

T.Y. Hilton manages to stay inbounds and reach the first down marker for the critical 4th down conversion that leads to FIU’s game-winning field goal. Photo by Matt Shaw.

Marrow’s shove knocks Hilton slightly off balance as his upper body threatens to topple him out of bounds. But Hilton’s left leg is firmly planted at the 45-yard line, allowing him to stay inbounds just long enough to try and make up the three yards between him and the first down.

His right foot comes around and lands at the 43-yard line, barely inside the sideline. His left foot comes across in a long stride as he goes out of bounds past the first down marker and into the FIU sideline, which instantly begins to clamor and insist Hilton made the first down.

“He always does it. He edges the sideline and gets as many yards as he can,” says FIU safety and current Jacksonville Jaguar Johnathan Cyprien, who was standing nearby on the sideline as the play unfolded. “I knew he had it.”

0:42

The clock is stopped with 42 seconds remaining and the sideline referee rushes in to mark the spot at the 42-yard line. After an official review to check where he went out of bounds, the spot is confirmed and FIU is awarded the first down.

 * * * * *

0:04

After the hook-and-ladder play, the FIU offense moves up to the 17-yard line to set up a 34-yard field goal attempt for kicker Jack Griffin. Carroll, who led his team down the field, re-enters the game as the holder for Griffin.

“Once we were in field goal range, we pretty much knew Jack was going to be automatic,” Carroll says. “He was such a dependable kicker and only missed three [field goals] the entire year.”

The ball is snapped and Caroll sets the ball down for the kick.

0:03

jack griffin

Kicker Jack Griffin (38) hit the game-winning 34-yard field goal as clock expired in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26, 2010. Photo by Samuel Lewis.

Griffin steps up, connects and sends the ball on its way as it sails safely over the hands of Toledo defenders attempting to block it.

0:02 … 0:01

Griffin and Carroll look up and there is no doubt about it. By the time the ball is halfway toward perfectly splitting the uprights, they embrace in celebration.

“As soon as I caught that snap and as soon as it left his foot, everybody knew it was in,” Carroll says.

Griffin says after the game: “We’ve done it all year long in practice and on game day. We just came through and did it.”

0:00

The ball sails through the uprights and the referees signal that the field goal is good.

Final Score: FIU 34, Toledo 32.

The Panthers storm off their sideline and spill onto the field to celebrate while the FIU fans who made the trip to Detroit go crazy in the stands.

A little more than three years after snapping a 23-game losing streak, the Panthers are now celebrating a bowl game victory for the first time.

“To be a part of history is special,” Carroll says. “We were able to accomplish what nobody thought was possible for us to do.”

It was truly a Motor City Miracle.