Dec. 11, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - The statistics and Conference USA football awards say Rakeem Cato had a better season in 2012 than he has had this season.
Don't try to tell that to Marshall's junior quarterback, however.
"We can still win 10 games," Cato said last Saturday after the Thundering Herd lost the C-USA title game to Rice, then accepted a Military Bowl bid. "It's been a while since Marshall has done that."
And if the Herd (9-4) gets to a 10th victory in its Dec. 27 bowl game against Maryland (7-5), the win total will have doubled from the 5-7 finish of a year ago, when sophomore Cato was named the league's Most Valuable Player.
On Wednesday, Cato was named the 2013 C-USA Offensive Player of the Year - despite being the all-conference second team quarterback, behind East Carolina's Shane Carden ... who won the MVP honor this time.
There is precedent for that among C-USA quarterbacks, it turns out.
In 2009, first teamer Case Keenum of Houston was the MVP, and the Offensive Player of the Year was second-team pick Joe Webb of UAB. Keenum was the Player of the Year a season earlier as a second team QB, behind league MVP Chase Clement, the quarterback at neighboring Rice.
"I thought Rakeem did a much better job this season as a player, even though maybe statistically, if you look at the raw numbers, they weren't as good as a year ago," said veteran Herd offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill Legg. "But I look at the small things. I look at how many times he was right in checks, how many times he was right in decisions and in those things, I thought he was much better this year."
Cato had a teammate honored, too, on Wednesday, as C-USA announced its seven top individual football awards, as voted by the 14 C-USA coaches.
For the first time since 1999, the league's Freshman of the Year honor was split, and Herd nickel back Corey Tindal
shared the honor with Tulane linebacker Nico Marley. Tindal, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was an All-Freshman Team pick a day earlier, as well as being an honorable mention pick on the all-conference squad.
It was Marshall's second straight season with a Freshman of the Year. Running back Kevin Grooms won the honor in 2012.
The 2013 C-USA honors to Cato and Tindal give Holliday's program five top C-USA awards in the last three seasons. In addition to Tindal and Grooms as Freshman of the Year back-to-back, and Cato's two awards, Herd senior end Vinny Curry - now with the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles -- was the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year.
The only previous C-USA Player of the Year honor for the Herd since it joined the league in 2005 went to end Albert McClellan, who shared the 2006 Defensive Player of the Year with Tulsa linebacker Nick Bunting. McClellan is in his third NFL season as a linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens.
In 2012, Cato led the nation in passing yards per game (350.1), completions (406) and attempts (584). He threw for 37 touchdowns and had 11 interceptions. The numbers he cared most about, however, were those under the letters W and L in the standings.
This season, Cato's yardage per game is down by 75 from a year ago, and he's had 130 fewer attempts and 136 fewer completions. He has 36 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions.
However, Marshall coach Doc Holliday repeatedly has said the Herd's offense is better this year than it was in 2012, and he has praised Legg's work in helping Cato mature as a quarterback and a person in the Miamian's three years in the program.
And thanks to a developing QB and an improved run game, Marshall is averaging 32 more yards per game (534.3) than a year, and is ranked seventh nationally in scoring offense (43 points per game).
"Numbers can be deceiving," said Legg, divulging that Cato helped the Herd by changing his own air-first game. "We went into this season with the mentality that we wanted to pick and choose the right play more frequently than we did a year ago.
"A year ago, we felt like with the youth we had upfront, the youth we had in backfield and the skill level we had on the perimeter, we had to lean toward our passing game. So, consequently, we threw the ball more."
That changed, and so did the victory total. The QB used his legs as well as his arm, rushing for 279 yards and six touchdowns.
"Our goal going into the offseason was to have more balance in the offense and for Rakeem to take more ownership of getting us in and out of plays," Legg said. "So, from an overall perspective, I thought we were better offensively, because he did a better job of getting us in and out of things.
"There were times I called passes and multiple occasions he saw them into a coverage look and Rakeem got us into a run play. There were times I called a run play and he saw them in a run-defend look and got us into pass plays.
"A lot of our stuff is combined, mix and match, where part of the team's doing a run, part of the team's doing a pass. Last year so many people tried to still defend the run and the ball got pulled a lot. This year, people were trying to take away those screens, those quick games, a lot more, with the idea that they were going to force us to run the football, force us to hand it off more often. But it reduced the amount of run support they had and therefore we ended up handing the ball off more."
Back in the summer, Cato was asked - in the wake of his MVP season - what he wanted to produce in his junior year.
"I have no percentages, yards," the 6-foot, 188-pounder said. "The only thing I'm focused on is having a great season as a team, going to a bowl. We want to win. We need to win. We do that, everything else will take care of itself."
Cato's leadership has made a difference, too. It's no accident or simply "quarterback endorsement" that Cato has been named a game captain eight times in 13 games - the most of any Herd player in 2013.
"Last year, we didn't ask him to do as much from a check standpoint, but this year we did," Legg said. "I thought his decision-making was significantly better. He graded out probably -- in 11 of 13 games, making the right decision - over 95 percent. And I'm asking him to make a lot of decisions.
"There were only a couple of times he was less than 95 percent, but he was still over 90 in those, and some of that was skewed because maybe he only played 50 plays that game. So, one or two minuses can be more significant than one or two minuses in an 85- or 90-play game."
Rice's David Bailiff won the 2013 C-USA Coach of the Year honor, his second of those (also 2008).
The conference's other top awards went to Carden (MVP), Tulsa linebacker Shawn Jackson (Defensive Player of the Year), North Texas kick-punt returner Brelan Chancellor (Special Teams Player of the Year) and FAU sophomore quarterback Jaquez Johnson (Newcomer of the Year).