The Panthers and Rockets meet in the Bahamas on Friday
The only bowl game played outside of the United States takes place on Friday, as Toledo and FIU meet in Nassau for the Bahamas Bowl. The pairing between the Panthers and Rockets is the fifth matchup in this bowl’s history, but this game has provided some intriguing and memorable games since its inception in 2014. Additionally, some conference bragging rights are also on the line. Over this bowl’s first four matchups, Conference USA and the MAC have split the games at two victories apiece.
Jason Candle continued to cement his place as a rising star in the coaching ranks by guiding Toledo to a 7-5 finish in the regular season. The Rockets won the MAC title last fall but opened the year with several personnel voids to address, including at quarterback with the departure of Logan Woodside. Candle’s team started 3-4, but the four defeats came at the hands of Miami, Fresno State, Buffalo and Eastern Michigan – all bowl teams. Toledo closed by winning four out of its last five matchups, with its only loss coming to Northern Illinois (38-15) on Nov. 7. Despite losing Woodside, the Rockets have maintained a high-powered attack. Candle’s offense averaged 41.1 points a game and 6.2 yards a snap in the regular season.
FIU is back in the postseason for the second consecutive year under Butch Davis. The Panthers went 8-5 in Davis’ debut last season but fell 28-3 to Temple in the Gasparilla Bowl. FIU followed up that strong 2017 campaign with another eight-win regular season, including a victory over C-USA East Division champ MTSU (24-21). If the Panthers knock off Toledo on Dec. 21, the program would exceed eight victories for the first time in school history. And with the work Davis is doing on the recruiting trail, FIU is poised to become an annual factor in C-USA’s East Division.
Toledo and FIU have three previous meetings. The Panthers hold a 2-1 series edge in those games. These two programs met in the 2010 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, with FIU winning a 34-32 thriller.
Bahamas Bowl: Toledo (7-5) vs. FIU (8-4)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 21 at 12:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Toledo -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Toledo’s Passing Attack
Toledo’s passing attack wasn’t as prolific as its 2017 version, but the offense still ranked near the top of the MAC in production this season. The Rockets averaged 224.9 yards a game through the air, helping the unit rank second in the MAC in yards per play (6.24) and 41.1 points a game. Despite using two quarterbacks, Toledo has already exceeded its passing touchdown total (29) from last season (28).
Mitchell Guadagni opened the year as Toledo’s No. 1 quarterback and started seven of the first eight games. The Ohio native threw for 1,053 yards and 13 touchdowns to just three picks but was sidelined against Bowling Green on Oct. 6 and also missed the final four games due to injury. He’s not expected to play in this game, which leaves Illinois transfer Eli Peters at the controls. The sophomore threw for 1,573 yards and 15 touchdowns to seven picks in the regular season, showing he’s capable of operating the Toledo attack at a high level.
When Peters drops back to pass, he’s got one of the nation’s top receiving corps at his disposal. Diontae Johnson, Cody Thompson and Jon’Vea Johnson are capable of scoring on any reception and have combined for 24 touchdown catches this season. Diontae Johnson and Cody Thompson are tied for the team lead in receptions with 43, while Jon’Vea Johnson averages a healthy 21.1 yards per catch.
FIU’s pass defense enters Friday’s game ranked sixth in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense and held opponents to just 16 scores through the air. However, the Panthers didn’t face the gauntlet of passing attacks in conference play this fall. How will this unit hold up against Toledo’s high-powered passing game? FIU has only 21 sacks this season but generating a pass rush would help this defense in slowing the Rockets’ receivers.
2. The Rockets’ Ground Game Against FIU’s Defense
In addition to Toledo’s firepower via the pass, Candle’s group also brings an explosive ground game to the Bahamas. The Rockets averaged 223.6 rushing yards a game and 5.3 yards per carry this fall. Kentucky transfer Bryant Koback paces the offense with 875 yards and 13 scores, followed by Art Thompkins (563) and Shakif Seymour. Thompkins is leaving the program as a graduate transfer, so Koback, Seymour, Ronnie Jones and Nevone McCrimmon will take on even more carries against FIU.
FIU’s defense struggled to stop the run in the regular season, giving up 198.4 yards a game. The Panthers allowed five yards per rush and surrendered 19 scores on the ground. Standout linebacker Fermin Silva was lost due to injury earlier this season, which left a void in the middle of Davis’ defense. Junior Sage Lewis (126 stops) and Texas transfer Edwin Freeman (89) will be tasked with keeping Toledo’s running game in check from the linebacker spots, but this defense could use a big game from linemen Tayland Humphrey, Teair Tart and Anthony Johnson on the interior.
In addition to the struggles against the run, FIU allowed opposing offenses to convert 41.8 percent on third downs this season. If Toledo has success running the ball, Candle’s group can stay in third-and-manageable all game, only adding to FIU’s concerns on defense for this matchup.
3. FIU’s Offense Against Toledo’s Defense
FIU quarterback James Morgan had a solid debut for the Panthers this fall, as he connected on 65.3 percent of his throws for 2,727 yards and 26 touchdowns to just seven picks. However, Morgan was ruled out on Thursday due to a shoulder injury, which means junior Christian Alexander will get the start under center. Alexander has completed 19 of 29 passes for 218 yards in limited time this fall. The junior has a solid group of weapons on the outside to stretch the field, including CJ Worton (36 catches for 620 yards), Austin Maloney (28), Maurice Alexander (35), Bryce Singleton (28) and tight end Sterling Palmer (22). It's no secret losing Morgan is a huge setback for this offense, but Alexander had time to work with the No. 1 offense during bowl practice and doesn't have to shoulder the entire offensive workload on his arm. How will the junior perform in his first start this season?
In addition to the firepower through the air, FIU brings one of the top rushing offenses in Conference USA to the Bahamas. The Panthers ranked third in C-USA by averaging 170 rushing yards a game, with Napoleon Maxwell (673 yards), Anthony Jones (246) and D’Vonte Price (521) slated to lead the way on Friday.
Defense has been problematic for Toledo this season, so FIU should have plenty of opportunities to move the ball. The Rockets have generated 34 sacks but will be facing an offensive line that has surrendered just 10 all year. Statistically, Toledo enters Friday’s game ranked sixth in the MAC against the run, eighth in scoring defense and is allowing nearly six yards a play (5.8). The Rockets also finished sixth in pass efficiency defense and ranked eighth in the MAC in red zone defense.
Morgan's injury has added a lot of uncertainty to this game and swings the balance even more in favor of Toledo. On paper, there should be no shortage of points in this one. Both teams have big-play potential through the air and on the ground, while the defenses have certainly allowed their share of yards and points this season. One x-factor to watch: Turnovers. FIU only lost 12 turnovers in the regular season and brings a plus-nine margin into this matchup. Toledo checks in at plus-three. If the Panthers can create a couple of takeaways, Davis’ team can keep the Rockets on the sideline and give Alexander and his passing game a chance to keep pace. Look for both teams to land their share of fireworks, but Toledo’s offense will be too much in the second half, as Candle’s team holds on for the win and finishes the year on a high note.