By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
Rakeem Cato has come a long way in two seasons.
Marshall’s sophomore quarterback was rewarded for a big year when he was selected as Conference USA’s Most Valuable Player, the league announced Wednesday.
A day after he was announced as a first-team all-conference selection, Cato became the first Marshall player to earn the league’s top honor. He is the sixth quarterback to be named C-USA MVP but the first underclassman.
The Miami native becomes the first Marshall offensive player to win a top conference award since Leftwich was named the Mid-American Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2002.
Cato burst onto the scene when he started as a true freshman in 2011. He had mixed results, from an upset win at Louisville to a four-interception game at Ohio. He completed 182 of 304 passes for 2,059 yards, 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Things improved dramatically this fall.
Cato leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in completions per game (33.83) and passing yards per game (350.08), and is third in touchdown passes (37), fifth in total offense per game (352.67) and completion percentage (69.5). He also leads C-USA in pass efficiency (147.1).
He led a Herd unit that is second in the nation in third-down conversion percentage (54.59) and first downs per game (29.42), and his 66.2 percent career completion mark (588 of 888) is currently a school record, just ahead of Herd legends Chad Pennington (65.1) and Byron Leftwich (63.4).
Despite an offense that ranked first in C-USA and sixth nationally, the Herd finished the year 5-7 and out of bowl contention.
The season may have been disappointing, but it can’t be argued that Marshall’s offense was fun to watch. Part of that was a running game that improved as the season went along.
That fact was reflected in Cato’s teammate, running back Kevin Grooms, being named the league’s Freshman of the Year. Like Cato, Grooms is the first Marshall player to earn the award.
Grooms, who originally committed to Miami, leads all C-USA freshmen with 67.0 rushing yards per game. He ran for eight touchdowns and caught another. His 737 rushing yards is the fourth-highest total all-time among Marshall freshmen.
His breakout game came against Rice, when he posted 103 rushing yards with three touchdowns to go with a 5-yard touchdown catch. He also tallied 155 rushing yards and a touchdown against Houston on 21 carries.