BOCA RATON, Fla. — Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato did not make any spectacular plays during Tuesday’s inaugural Boca Raton Bowl, which served as his final college game.
Instead, Cato made smart play after smart play and did not make any mistakes against the Northern Illinois Huskies. He made sound decisions, his passes were precise and he ran the ball when the Huskies were not expecting it.
In the only game outside of the College Football Playoff that featured two conference champions, Cato delivered a masterful performance to lead Marshall to a commanding 52-23 victory at FAU Stadium.
Cato, a senior who is from Miami, scored five touchdowns and threw for 281 yards in front of almost 20 members of his family.
“Cato played extremely well,” coach Doc Holliday said. “When he’s on the biggest stage, he rallies. He’s the most competitive quarterback I’ve ever been around.”
For the first time this season, Cato ditched his traditional number and wore the number 31 jersey in honor of his teammate, linebacker Evan McKelvey, who tore his ACL in October against Old Dominion. Along with the victory, Cato ended his career by throwing at least one touchdown pass in his past 46 games, which tied the NCAA record among all divisions. His best pass of the game — a perfect 27-yard touchdown to receiver Deon-Tay McManus in the back of the end zone — was the exclamation mark that gave the Thundering Herd a 25-point lead.
|RAKEEM CATO CAREER STATS|
Yet Cato, who finished the season with a school-record 40 touchdown passes, was not the only player from Miami to have a stellar performance against the Huskies.
Receiver Tommy Shuler, who was Cato’s teammate at Miami Central High, ran through and around Northern Illinois’ secondary, always finding a way to get open. In fact, Cato’s first seven completions went to Shuler, as the two have been best friends since they were children.
Shuler, a senior, finished the game with 18 catches for 185 receiving yards and one touchdown.
“It’s a blessing to play and grow with him,” Cato said of Shuler. “It’s been a fun ride for us. We just kept taking what they were giving us and we were taking advantage of it.”
Northern Illinois (11-3) arrived in Boca Raton with a seven-game winning streak after winning the Mid-American Conference championship game against Bowling Green. Yet coach Rod Carey knew his Huskies were going up against an offensive juggernaut in Marshall. Carey even joked that preparing for Marshall gave him headache every time he thought about trying to stop Cato and the rest of the Thundering Herd (13-1).
“I don’t think we executed at times to stop them, and they played well,” Carey said of Cato and Shuler. He added of Shuler: “He ran routes inside and outside. We gave him all sorts of looks. We threw it all at him, so you have to give him credit.”
On defense, Marshall did surrender plenty of yards to Northern Illinois — 425 total yards — but the Thundering Herd excelled in the red zone at forcing the Huskies into field goals instead of giving up touchdowns. Even after Northern Illinois recovered an onside kick to start the third quarter, the Thundering Herd stopped the Huskies on fourth-and-inches to regain the momentum.
“We were prepared for that onside kick, so that was disappointing,” Holliday said. “That was a huge stop for us. I thought that was probably one of the biggest plays of the game.”
From that moment on, Cato led Marshall to four touchdowns. After the Thundering Herd’s final touchdown, Cato ran to the sideline and was congratulated by Holliday, who hugged him.
“I loved him, and I’m going to miss him,” Holliday said of Cato. “He’s a special kid. He means so much to me and he’s done so much to our program.”
Almost every player on Marshall’s sideline patted Cato on the back or the head during the game’s final minutes.
After he was given the offensive MVP award, Cato sat next to Holliday in the postgame news conference. Cato said it was a blessing to play his final game in South Florida. He also said it was special that his final memory in a Marshall uniform was him leading the Thundering Herd to a victory.