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Boca Raton Bowl final: Cato and Shuler shine in finale over NIU

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Rakeem Cato made the most of his final game as a member of the Thundering Herd, while his best friend, WR Tommy Shuler, cemented his own legacy by becoming the all-time career receptions leader in school history. The Herd defeated Northern Illinois 52-23 to cap off one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Herd finish the season at 13-1 and winners of the Conference USA title. They came within one point of a perfect season.

Tommy Shuler runs past Boomer Mays with one of his seven first half receptions
Tommy Shuler runs past Boomer Mays with one of his seven first half receptions
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Before the game started, Rakeem Cato took a look at the crowd.  He found some friends. He also found some family members. One person that he could not see, but he knew was in the building somewhere, was his mother Juanice Cato.

Juanice Cato passed away from pneumonia when Rakeem was only eight-years old and in the sixth grade. His good friends at the time were Tommy Shuler and current Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman. However, his best friend was his mother, and he knows that she would not miss a game and he believes that she is with him every time that he steps on a field or straps on a helmet.

In a nationally televised game on ESPN, Miami Central alumni Rakeem Cato and Tommy Shuler put on an offensive clinic for their hometown fans and cemented their places in Marshall history by giving superlative efforts in their final games as collegians.  Cato knew that his mother would be proud of his efforts and that is in Heaven smiling and bragging about her son's heroics.

Tuesday night marked the end of an era in Thundering Herd football and it was only fitting that the team's two biggest stars shined the brightest in it's 52-23 victory over Northern Illinois in the inaugural Boca Bowl, played on Howard Schnellenberger Field at FAU Stadium.

"It's been a true blessing coming here, it's everything that I have ever dreamed of," Cato said. "I was a boy when I came to Marshall, but I am now leaving as a man. I do not think that my mother could be any prouder."

Both Cato and Shuler displayed the zest and zeal that they had when they first met at the age of eight at Gwen Cherry Park in Liberty City, a tough neighborhood in inner-city Miami  They had played Pop Warner football together and some 13 years later, they finished off, at least their amateur careers, on a big stage and one tried to out do the other. However, neither player is projected to be drafted in the May college player draft as experts say that they are both undersized.

Tell that to the Northern Illinois defense that got scorched by this year's edition of Miami Vice. Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said all week leading up to the game that trying to figure out how to stop the Duo caused him to have countless headaches.

"I don't think that we played too well against them tonight," Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said after the game. "You have to give them all the credit. They made all the plays."

The Dynamic Duo performed well statistically and had a night that looks very good on paper.  Cato finished the game going 25-of-37 passing for 281 yards and three second-half  scores. He also scored twice on the ground. He would have had a touchdown receiving, on a halfback option pass from Shuler, but it was negated by offsetting penalties.

"Rakeem Cato is the most competitive quarterback that I have ever been around," Marshall coach Doc Holliday said after the game, and included in that class former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. "And Shuler is one of the best wide receivers that I have ever coached because he has the "it" factor.He is a special kid, they both are and I am so happy for both of them."

Shuler, meanwhile, surpassed Josh Davis' record of 306 career receptions with his fifth grab in the first half.  He caught 18 passes, one shy of his own team record, for 185 yards and a touchdown. Both players had terrific nights, but Cato was voted the game's Most Valuable Player.

"Shuler is the greatest man to man matchup on this planet to me," Cato said after the game. "It was surreal coming back to South Florida to play my final game," Cato said. "When I heard that we were coming home to play in this bowl game, I dropped to my knees and thanked the Lord."

The Huskies scored first as they marched 67 yards on seven plays as quarterback Drew Hare found Juwan Brescacin with a 19-yard scoring strike to give NIU an early 7-0 lead.  NIU caught the Herd out of position on a few plays as coach Rod Carey's multiple offense which features a lot of shifts and quick strikes appeared to confuse the Herd's front seven. Carey has preached a run-first philosophy all week, but it was the pass that fed the Huskies early.

The lead was short-lived, however, as Deandre Reaves took the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown and with Justin Haig's extra point, the Herd tied the game at 7.  The return was the longest of the season for the Herd and it surpassed Reaves' prior personal best of 81 yards.  The last time that the Herd returned a kickoff for a touchdown was October 27, 2012 against the University of Central Florida.

On their next series, the Herd made it a 14-7 contest as Cato faked the zone read and took it in from five yards out.

The teams then traded field goals before the Herd scored another touchdown on a two-yard plunge by Devon Johnson. Marshall led 24-10 with 5:29 to play in the first half.

Christian Hagan then kicked his second field goal of the game right before the half to make the score 24-13 at the intermission.

When the second half opened, the Huskies were set to kickoff to the Herd, but kicked and onside kick, which they recovered.  The Herd defense came up big and forced a punt.

After the fair catch by Shuler, Cato engineered a nine-play, 56-yard drive that ended with him tossing a six-yard pass to Shuler for the score that made it a 31-13 game.

"I would just give him (Cato) a head nod," Shuler said. "That means, hey I'm open, throw me the ball."

The scoring pass marked the 46th straight game that Cato threw at least one touchdown pass in a game and that tied an NCAA record for most consecutive games with a touchdown.  It is a record on the FBS level.

Hare did not give up.  He took his team down the field on the next drive and led them 75 yards for a matching touchdown. Cameron Stingily ran the final 24 yards to make the score 31-20.

Hare would finish the game 15-of-27 for 225 yards and the one score.  He also had 50 yards rushing. He finished the season nine yards shy of 1,000.

Cato would not be outdone. When Marshall got the ball back, he led them to the promised land one more time. This time it would be Angelo Jean-Louis who was on the receiving end of the scoring strike of 11 yards.  The 11 play drive took a little less than three minutes and Marshall took a 38-20 lead.

The signal caller was not done for the evening for Marshall.  Cato took the ball on the next series and moved the Herd 70 yards in 9 plays and tossed a 27-yard scoring pass to Deon-Tay McManus. Aside from making the score 45-20, Cato threw his 40th scoring pass of the season, a new record for Marshall. Cato had tied the record of 39 that was set by Chad Pennington.

NOTES:

The Herd are now 9-2 in bowl appearances, all time.  It is the best nationally for teams that have gone to five or more bowls.

Cato and Shuler's superlatives watered down the superb effort that Marshall got from Johnson. Johnson had 15 carries for 131 yards and the above-mentioned touchdown. His longest run of the night was 47 yards and he averaged almost 9 yards a carry.

Cato also honored Evan McKelvey by wearing his number 31 in the bowl game as opposed to the number 12 that Cato has worn his entire playing career.

It was leaked earlier today that Holliday verbally agreed to a second contract extension that will keep him as the head of the Herd for a longer period of time and give him a significant raise in salary.  The contract was extension was agreed to, but no contract was signed. It should be finalized just after the start of the new year.  This will be the second extension that Holliday would have received since July.

"Mike Hamrick and I have had major discussions and I'd say sometime here soon, that will happen," Holliday said after the game.

What set this deal in motion was the University of Pittsburgh, who hired Pat Narduzzi from Michigan State today as their next head coach, having their sights set on Holliday, requested permission to meet with him in South Florida. When the Herd's administration got wind of that, they scurried to get a deal done that would not only leave Holliday happy in Huntington, but it is believed that the new contract would insure that any school that tried to lure Holliday from Marshall, would be subject to a large buyout similar to the one that the University of Florida had to pay to get the rights to Jim McElwain from Colorado State University.

Holliday, 57, has led the Herd to a 39-25 record in his five years at the school.  The Herd have gone to three bowls in those five seasons and have captured their first Conference USA title this season.  Herd brass wanted to make sure that their head coach was not going anywhere.