Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato and wide receiver Tommy Shuler played their last game together as a record-setting duo for the Thundering Herd at the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl, and the childhood friends had a blast at the expense of the Northern Illinois Huskies.
Marshall claimed an impressive 52-23 victory over North Illinois. With the win, Doc Holliday‘s program finished 13-1 this season, while the Huskies have now lost three straight bowl games.
Cato and Shuler essentially played a simple game of pitch and catch during the contest as the Huskies helplessly failed to stop either.
The quarterback finished the contest 25-of-37 passing for 281 yards and three touchdowns. Shuler, meanwhile, caught 18 of those passes for 185 yards and a touchdown.
Both performances set new records.
First, Cato broke his own school record with a new season high in touchdown passes.
Shuler’s aspirations were a little higher than simply setting a new program record. The wide receiver broke a Conference USA career record during his unbelievable performance.
Northern Illinois simply couldn’t match Marshall’s explosive offense, particularly in the second half. While 425 yards of total offense is generally considered an impressive output, it was still 80 yards less than Marshall accumulated. And Marshall could have made it even worse late in the game before pulling back the reins.
As talented as Cato and Shuler are, running back Devon Johnson can’t be overlooked. The 243-pound running back set the tone early with his physical running style. He ended the contest with 131 rushing yards on only 15 carries.
A win in the Boca Raton Bowl may be a bit of a disappointment for the Thundering Herd, who entered the season with bigger aspirations, but Marshall once again proved its one of the finest programs not located in a Power Five conference.
WHO: Northern Illinois (11-2) vs. Marshall (12-1)
WHAT: The inaugural Boca Raton Bowl
WHERE: FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, Florida
WHEN: 6:00 p.m. ET Dec. 23 on ESPN
THE SKINNY: The brand new Boca Raton Bowl has quite the match-up of non-power conference champions. The champions of Conference USA (Marshall) and the MAC (Northern Illinois) should provide for a good, quality game. For Marshall, it may be one last attempt to prove itself to be the top non-power conference champion after passed over by Boise State for a spot in the New Years Six line-up. Marshall and NIU combined for a record of 23-3 this season.
Marshall’s offense centers around the veteran quarterback Rakeem Cato. Cato should be able to find his targets — Tommy Shuler and Davonte Allen are his top two receivers — against NIU’s secondary, which ranks 64th in the nation in pass defense. Cato may have to extend some plays with his feet though, as NIU should be expected to bring pressure in the backfield. NIU recorded 30 sacks this season, but they go up against a Marshall offensive line that has done well in protecting their quarterback. Cato may have to extend some plays with his feet at times. Fortunately for the Conference USA champions and head coach Doc Holliday, this is something Cato does well. Cato has rushed for 457 yards and six touchdowns this season.
Marshall went 3-0 against the MAC this season with wins against Miami, Ohio and Akron, but NIU will be the biggest test for the Thundering Herd. NIU started the season off a little bit on a slow note as they looked to replace Jordan Lynch, but the Huskies ended the season hitting their stride at a very good time. Drew Hare has come along as a dual-threat player under center, but the running game is powered mostly by Cameron Stingily, a tough and physical back with the ability to wear down Marshall’s defense.
Marshall has won three straight bowl games dating back to 2009. The Huskies of NIU are looking to snap a two-game losing streak in postseason bowl action. Head coach Rod Carey is 0-2 in bowl games, including one Orange Bowl loss to Florida State in an interim role at the end of the 2012 season after Dave Doeren left the Huskies for NC State.
THE PREDICTION: NIU 34, Marshall 31
Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato tossed three touchdowns in the first quarter to get the Thundering Herd off to a great start against a struggling Tulsa program. Then, after Tulsa had taken advantage of Marshall’s mistakes to storm back for a 34-31 lead in the fourth quarter, Cato once again helped save the day with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Tommy Shuler to put Marshall back on top for good. Cato threw five touchdowns and Marshall overcame five turnovers to pick up a key win in Conference USA play, 45-34.
Cato completed 33 of 58 pass attempts for 456 yards and five touchdowns and Marshall needed it. The Herd lost four fumbles and Cato was intercepted once but Tulsa was not able to finish off the rally in the second half. Marshall led 31-14 at halftime but Tulsa tied the game at 31-31 with a 17-point third quarter. The Golden Hurricane then took their first lead of the game with a Carl Salazar field goal but Cato led Marshall down field and regained the lead that had slipped away. Devon Smith and Shuler each had 100-yard receiving games and combined for three touchdowns.
The victory for Marshall keeps them in a good position in the Conference USA East Division. With the win Marshall is tied for first place in the division with East Carolina with identical 5-1 Conference USA records. The two will play in the regular season finale in Huntington, West Virginia on Friday, November 29.