Dec. 3, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Fifty-three weeks ago, Rakeem Cato was named the best football player in Conference USA, as the league’s 2012 Most Valuable Player.
And next week, when C-USA reveals its 2013 top honors, the Marshall junior quarterback may again be the MVP, or perhaps the Offensive Player of the Year … and deservedly so. Voting coaches’ ballots are due today.
However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
What Cato really wants is a different trophy. He wants to hold the C-USA Championship Trophy with his Herd teammates after Saturday afternoon’s title game at Rice Stadium against the host Owls.
“The only thing I’m focused on is winning a championship,” Cato said. “We want to go to a bowl and win. We wanted to make this into a winning program, and we’re doing that.
“We do that, all those other things take care of themselves.”
Cato has gone from something of the brightest light on a losing team – 5-7 last season – to one in a growing galaxy of players of significance in coach Doc Holliday’s program.
He continues to approach the numbers of earlier MU quarterbacks greats – Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich – and he’s thrown at least one touchdown pass in a school-record 30 consecutive games.
But two numbers-driven facts better reflect what a matured Cato means to the 9-3 Herd.
In Marshall’s five-game winning streak – matching the program’s longest since the 2001 team won 10 straight – Cato has thrown for 19 touchdowns with only two interceptions.
And in last Friday’s East Division clincher over East Carolina, Cato ran for two scores for the first time in his career as a three-year starter.
Holliday has said several times during the season that the Herd has a better offense than it did last season, even if some of the statistics pale to the air-driven numbers of 2012. Cato’s increased freedom and decision-making in the offense and a much-improved running game are the differences.
And Marshall heads to Houston with five consecutive games of at least 500 yards total offense, and an average of 601.8 yards per game in that win streak.
“I tell the guys every day, practice makes perfect,” Cato said. “That’s what it is. You go out there and have a great practice, going 100 percent, great effort, just not going through the motions, things like that, and we have a great shot.
“It’s working hard, scout team pushing the offense, scout team pushing the defense, just going out there and working hard.”
Cato, who has 86 career TD passes and 34 this season, said the one-sided triumph over 9-3 East Carolina for the C-USA divisional crown wasn’t necessarily a statement game for the program, although poll voters were impressed by arguably the Herd’s biggest win in more than a decade.
“We just take it one game at a time,” the Herd quarterback said. “Our guys were really focused for that game and felt like we owed that team, owed East Carolina from last year (a double-overtime loss that kept Marshall from a bowl berth).
“I feel we got the job done with that. We’re just ready to play ball. We just take it one game at a time and right now it’s Rice and we’ve just got to focus on Rice and we’ve got to get the job done.”
Holliday says the difference in the Herd offense is reflected in Cato’s play and his competitive nature. Last week, the Herd coach was asked about Cato’s pending star QBs duel with ECU’s Shane Carden, and how that matchup might light Cato’s fire.
Holliday said no one needs to strike a match, no matter who the opponent.
“It doesn’t take Cato a whole lot to get excited about competing,” Holliday said then. “That’s just him. He’ll be out there today in practice competing as hard as he can because that’s the mindset he brings. I think Cato is a better quarterback this year than he was a year ago.
“Our offense is much more productive than it was a year ago. He’s become a more complete and better quarterback. (Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach) Bill Legg deserves some much credit for that. He has done a tremendous job with him on and off the field. He’s just a much better quarterback.
“Cato studies the game and he prepares. He’s constantly thinking football and preparing. Bill has done a great job at preparing him as well. Cato has exceptional football smarts. He loves the game, he competes, he works at and again Bill deserves so much credit for his development.”
Cato said he takes “some things” from the Herd’s 54-51 double-OT victory last season at Rice, when the Herd ran for 334 yards and he was 28-of-39 for 259 yards, two scores and no interceptions.
“I watched film last night, basically see the same thing they were doing last year,” Cato said. “They like to play man-to-man, like to press corners. They have a good cornerback (senior Phillip Gaines) that I really like.
“We just have to run the ball again. They know what we’re going to do, we know what they’re going to do. It’s not a secret, so we just have to go out there with the right mindset, play hard and come out with a ‘W.’”
Cato said the Herd learned from its only C-USA loss, on the road at Middle Tennessee, one of several road games early in the season in which the Herd struggled to get out of the gate and sustain success. The quarterback said that all changed Nov. 14 at Tulsa, when Marshall rallied to win a crucial game.
That makes a trip to Rice one the Herd takes with more confidence, and Cato said on matter the site, it is a title game, Marshall’s first since 2002 in the Mid-American Conference.
“I feel it’s a different mindset than before, (Tulsa),” Cato said. “I feel our team has a different mindset going on the road now than earlier in the season. We understand what’s out there for us, and we all have one common goal right now and that’s to win the championship Saturday. And I know everybody is going to be well-prepared, going hard, doing extra just to get better for the game Saturday.
“It’s a championship game. I’ve told these guys, ‘We’ve got to come well-prepared, work hard this week, and don’t change anything we’ve been doing all year, so everything else will take care of itself.”
Holliday said if the loss at Middle Tennessee was an eye-opener for some among the Herd, that wasn’t the case for Cato.
“He’s a competitive guy that hates that taste of losing,” Holliday said last week. “They don’t want to go there. I’m not saying he needed a wakeup call, that’s not it at all. He played pretty well in that game. He’s just a competitive guy that hates to lose and that’s a good thing.
“This football team, including Cato, has found ways to win games instead of finding ways to lose them. They’ve started to develop that. They hate to lose, refuse to lose. That’s a good thing and a good quality to have on your team right now.”
The last time Cato didn’t throw a touchdown pass in a game was against the Owls at Edwards Stadium on Oct. 15, 2011, one week after the true freshman had a meltdown during a loss at UCF. Those emotional days have been tempered by the quarterback, who these days puts both bad and good plays behind him.
Now, his focus is to help his Herd teammates win something many of them haven’t, but the quarterback has – a championship. Cato quarterbacked Miami Central High to a Florida 6A title in his 2010 senior season.
He was one of the few Marshall players who raised his hand when Holliday asked his team about title-winning experience over the weekend.
“I was surprised,” Cato said of the small number that had won a title on this Herd team. “Right now, it’s our moment, so when Coach Holliday asks that question again, our whole team will be able to hold our hands up, man.
“This is one of those moments you really have to take seriously. We have to know what’s in front of us and take this game seriously. We’ve waited a long time for this here, to play for a championship.”