By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Rakeem Cato’s biggest win of his true freshman season at Marshall came in the regular season finale against East Carolina.
Yes, the Thundering Herd upset Louisville on the road with Cato calling the signals, but that 34-27 overtime win made them bowl eligible in their last try.
A season that ended with a 20-10 win over Florida International in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl was a big learning experience for Cato. This year, he has been able to parlay that experience into becoming one of the leading passers in the country.
Meanwhile, in Greenville, N.C., Shane Carden is going through much the same deal as Cato a year ago. Carden is a sophomore who did not play a snap behind center last year, but at least has the benefit of a year to get used to the system.
But Carden has taken off since supplanting Rio Johnson (who has since left the program) earlier this season. The 6-foot-2, 218-pound Houston native has completed nearly 65 percent of his passes (210 of 324) for 2,399 yards with 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions through 11 games.
“No. 1, he takes care of the football,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “He’s managing the game, and he’s doing what Lincoln Riley (offensive coordinator) wants him to do. He puts the ball perfect into (receiver Justin) Hardy’s and others’ hands. The key is he’s taking care of the ball and distributing the ball in the right places.”
The Pirates average basically the same numbers under Carden as they did in 2011 under quarterback Dominique Davis. The difference is, Davis was not as careful with the ball as Carden — Davis threw 19 interceptions last season, three in the loss to Marshall.
“Carden manages the game really well,” Holliday said.
“Shane is doing a good job and liking the tempo that we are playing at right now,” East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill said. “He also should be credited with getting us into the right play and formations in the red zone.”
McNeill also is concerned about Cato and the way he leads the Marshall offense. Cato leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards (3,884), yards per game (353.0) and completions per game (34.09).
“What makes him good are the repetitions that he has now had in his second year running this offense,” said McNeill. “It is what Shane Carden is starting to go through now, where he is seeing coverages and blitzes multiple times. The offensive line does a great job of protecting him, and he also has some outstanding offensive weapons to go to. Rakeem does a great job of not panicking.
“When we do blitz him, we need to stay in our rush lanes. Our secondary needs to be disciplined. If he breaks the pocket, we still can’t leave designated assignments and give up a big play. Often times when Cato escapes the pocket, he is running to extend plays instead of scrambling.””
Marshall (5-6, 4-3 Conference USA) will visit ECU (7-4, 6-1) at 2 p.m. Friday in both teams’ regular season finale. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
The Herd would become bowl eligible with a victory.
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