By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – Rakeem Cato awoke Sunday morning among the national leaders – well, at least the FBS part of it – in passing yards.
After a 32-for-42 passing night for 377 yards and three touchdowns in Marshall’s 52-24 Saturday night romp past Western Carolina, the Herd sophomore quarterback has completed 70-of-96 for 790 air yards – behind Ryan Nassib of Syracuse and David Piland of Houston.
At a school known for its prolific passing in the not-too-distant past – think Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich – Cato isn’t ready to put himself into that class. Nor is Coach Doc Holliday … yet.
“He’s done a tremendous job,” Holliday said. “I think he’s matured, really grown up, but I’m not ready to put him with Chad and Byron, not yet. He’s still a young guy. But for a true sophomore to come in and do what he’s done in the last two games, make good reads, preparing, taking care of the ball.
“I like his poise, but he’s got to continue to grow up, but there’s no doubt from Year 1 to Year 2, he’s improved a bunch.”
Cato is going to continue to rise on the Herd’s career passing charts, too.
In the victory over the Herd’s one-time Southern Conference foe, Cato climbed past former Herd QBs Eric Kresser (226), Bud Nelson (232) and Reggie Oliver (240) in career completions, with 252 in only 15 games. He’s now 11th all-time, but a long distance from No. 10 Stan Hill’s 420.
Cato also is already 14th in Herd history in career passing yards with 2,849 – 37 behind Young Thundering Herd leader Oliver. In Saturday’s win, Cato passed Ted Shoebridge, whose career was tragically snuffed out when the junior from New Jersey died in the Herd team plane crash in 1970.
The Herd QB also ranks 12th in school history with 20 scoring passes.
As he guided the rout past the FCS Catamounts (1-1), Cato said his opinion of his play was that it wasn’t up to his previous 413-yard performance, in a big loss at nationally-ranked West Virginia.
“I think I played better last week (at WVU),” he said. “I had trouble settling down early, made some mistakes.”
As Holliday said after the home-opening win, “you’re never where you want it to be. You always want to improve as a football team.”
In that regard, his bearded quarterback from Miami is a reflection of a young Herd club that has taken uptempo to new heights with 195 plays in two games -- that number also tops major college football.
“First quarter, for some reason, my head wasn’t all in it in the beginning,” Cato said. “Don’t know why … but I made a couple of bad reads. I had to get my swagger back. The wideouts and the offensive line just told me to calm down.
“I don’t think I had any mental breakdowns last week at West Virginia. I was really focused. I thought I started fast and ended fast. This time, I started out slow, and ended fast.”
Cato’s “slow start” included 98 air yards, completing four of five passes on the game’s first series, leading to Justin Haig’s 24-yard field goal and a 3-0 Marshall lead.
Holliday said it wasn’t just Cato. The third-year Herd coach said he told his team “to just get first downs. I thought in the first quarter those guys thought every time they touched the ball, they had to score. Get first downs. Move the chains. I thought they settled in after the first quarter.”
Western Carolina first-year Coach Mark Speir called Cato “a cool cucumber. He doesn’t get flustered … his composure, he keeps the play alive … When you have a quarterback like him with the other athletes they have, he can be real effective … Marshall does a great job with tempo and getting players in space.”
With redshirt freshman Blake Frohnapfel’s backup contribution, too, Cato has led the Herd to the nation’s top passing offense, 421.5 yards per game.
“It really helps that Coach is getting a lot of people into the game and we’re getting them involved,” Cato said of the Herd’s depth. “Coach is willing to trust everyone on the field, even if you’re fourth- or fifth-string, as long as you make plays. If we can keep playing a lot of guys, it keeps people fresh. The (intrateam) competition helps us play harder.”
The Herd is No. 6 in total offense in FBS (580 yards per game), and Ohio (2-0) comes to Edwards Stadium on Saturday night at 6:30 at No. 14 in total offense (541.5 per game) in an attractive Battle for the Bell rivalry game.
Cato also finds himself in something of a unique situation in the early season quarterback matchups he’s experienced. He first went against his friend from Miami, Heisman Trophy candidate Geno Smith of West Virginia. Then it was against his ex-Herd backup of a year ago, WCU transfer Eddie Sullivan.
Next, it’s Bobcats junior star Tyler Tettleton, considered one of the nation’s best QBs, too.
“Every game is personal,” Cato said. “When I’m going out as a quarterback, I want to show up and be better than the other quarterback. Every game is a big game, but when you’re playing against someone like a Geno or a Tettleton, you want to play up. You have to do that to win.”