By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Marshall coach Doc Holliday has talked many times about how much quarterback Rakeem Cato has matured.
Yes, Cato’s play has improved exponentially, and his ability to run away from trouble and extend plays has added another dimension to his game. But the improvement between his ears and in his heart also stands out.
During a timeout in the middle of Marshall’s 61-13 thrashing of Southern Miss last Saturday, members of the 1998 Mid-American Conference championship team were recognized not only for their conference title but also for beating Louisville in the Motor City Bowl, the first bowl win in team history.
The entire offense on this season’s version of the Thundering Herd lined up and shook the hands of those who were able to attend.
And leading the way was Cato.
“It was my idea,” Cato said. “Those guys are an inspiration. Great guys, great role models, great leaders. Not only as football players, but as great men. Some of them had their kids in front of them and stuff like that. Those are the type of leaders you want to surround yourself with.”
Holliday spoke first in the postgame press conference and said he wasn’t sure if the gesture was Cato’s idea, but it would not have surprised him.
“Probably. It sounds like something he would do,” Holliday said.
The coaching staff’s faith in Cato was evident in practice early last week when the junior from Miami was given the green light to check out of plays. That freedom came in handy against the Golden Eagles, particularly on an 18-yard touchdown run by Essray Taliaferro that gave Marshall a 42-10 lead in the third quarter.
It was supposed to be a pass play on first-and-10, but when Cato saw a Cover-2, he checked off and Taliaferro ran right through the middle of the line for his sixth TD of the season.
“(Offensive coordinator Bill) Legg, even before we played Southern Miss, gave me a lot more freedom to (when) I see things, check it off,” Cato said. “The O-line did a great job and Tally hit the hole right. When I checked it off, it just connected and Tally made a great run and a score.”
“They gave him the freedom earlier in the week to check anything he sees,” said Tommy Shuler, who had 10 receptions for 76 yards and two touchdowns. “He went out there and made great checks. We just worried about getting the first down.”
Cato was 21 of 28 for 262 yards and five touchdowns in less than three quarters of action. He tied Chad Pennington’s school record of consecutive games with a touchdown pass to 26, which is one behind Fresno State’s Derek Carr for the longest active streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
He has 72 career TD passes, passing Michael Payton for third in team history. Pennington is first with 115 and Byron Leftwich second with 89.
“With the exception of the one turnover he had (a fumble in the first quarter), I thought he played well,” Holliday said. “I think we were 300-plus rushing (304 yards) and 300-plus passing (332 with backup Blake Frohnapfel’s 70). That balance, I believe, helped us. A lot of that was on him. He made some great checks. We had some calls that were actually (supposed to be) throws, but he checked to runs. A lot of the run-pass options he did a great job of getting us into the right call. He managed the game extremely well.”
Among the players from the 1998 team on hand was Pennington, one of the greats from Marshall’s quarterback past. As Pennington did three times, Cato would like to lead the Herd to a conference title.
That was the basis for his leading the players in a show of respect to that landmark team.
“Cato and Chad are tight, and they do respect them,” Holliday said. “That team wants to do what that team did, and that’s go win a championship. So those guys have great respect for those guys because they’ve done it and they were wearing the same uniforms that they are wearing. They’ve got great respect for that group and so do I.”
— E-mail: gfauber@
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