Locals lead Marshall to Boca Raton Bowl victory

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BOCA RATON, FL (Reuters) – The historic connection of Marshall Thundering Herd quarterback Rakeem Cato and top receiver Tommy Shuler began 14 years ago at Gwen Cherry Park in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood and came to a conclusion in a major way not too far from their old stomping grounds Tuesday night in their final collegiate game. The duo, who played Little League and high school ball together before heading to Marshall together, capped their collegiate careers with one final bang. Cato threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns, one of them to Shuler, and added two rushing touchdowns, and the Thundering Herd stormed past Northern Illinois 52-23 at the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl at FAU Stadium. Marshall (13-1) came out on top in the only bowl game between conference champions outside of the College Football Playoff semifinals. Cato completed 25 of 37 passes. Eighteen of his completions went to Shuler, who finished with 185 receiving yards. “We just give a head nod,” Shuler said about the communication between the two. “He knows I got his back and he just throws it up to me.” There was a whole lot of head-nodding going on between Shuler and Cato. Cato, who was named Boca Raton Bowl MVP, extended his Football Bowl Subdivision record of consecutive games with a touchdown pass to 46 when he hit Shuler for a 6-yard score in the middle of the third quarter. Shuler, with his 18-catch outburst — one short of his career high — moved to No. 1 on the Conference USA all-time receptions list with 322 career catches shortly after jumping atop the school’s list earlier in the game. He finishes his career fourth on the FBS’ receptions list. Cato also broke his own school record of 39 touchdown passes in a single season, established last year, when he found wide receiver Deon-Tay McManus on a 27-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter to finish with 40 on the year. “I’ve been around national titles and I’ve been around a lot of NFL quarterbacks. He’s the most competitive quarterback I’ve ever coached,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “He’s broke every record at Marshall University, and he broke (the records of) two guys that played 19 years in the NFL — Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.” Cato and Shuler, who hooked up on all seven of Marshall’s completed passes in the first half, had their grand finales just two counties north of their hometown in South Florida. “When I first found out we were coming down here, my eyes lit up,” Cato said. “It was a huge blessing and a huge honor for us to come down here, for our families to come out and watch us play.” Marshall running back Devon Johnson ran for 131 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries to lead a rushing attack that added balance to the offense. The Huskies (11-3) finished even with the Herd in nearly every statistical category. They ran for 200 yards and passed for 225, but five trips to the red zone resulted in just one touchdown and four field-goal attempts — three of them successful. “It was the stuff we were practicing all week,” said quarterback Drew Hare, who completed 15 of 27 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 50 yards on 14 carries. “We knew what they were going to do, and they did it well. Credit goes to them.” Northern Illinois had made its mark as a second-half team all season, outscoring opponents 129-62 after halftime, but the Huskies didn’t have it Tuesday, losing the second half 28-10. NIU coach Rod Carey tried to pull momentum his team’s way with an onside kick to begin the second half, but after recovering it, the Huskies were stuffed on back-to-back runs on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1. “I think we ran the ball well at times tonight, but not when we needed to,” Carey said. “The mark of a good running team I always say is you run when you need to, and we couldn’t tonight in some key situations.” Northern Illinois struck first with a 19- yard touchdown pass from Hare to wide receiver Juwan Brescacin. Marshall, sparked by a 93-yard return touchdown from Deandre Reaves on the ensuing kickoff, responded with 17 unanswered points. Cato followed Reaves’ return with a 5-yard rushing touchdown off a read-option on the next drive. After the teams exchanged field goals early in the second quarter, Johnson capped a sixplay, 65-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run that was set up by a 42-yard connection from Cato to Shuler. Neither team turned the ball over in a clean game by the two prolific offenses. The squads combined for just 10 penalties. NOTES: The Herd had 29 players on its roster from the state of Florida. Northern Illinois’ roster featured 11 Floridians. … Cato wore No. 31 on Tuesday to honor teammate Evan McKelvey, who tore his ACL earlier this season. A member of the Thundering Herd wore McKelvey’s number in every game this season except one, the 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky. … Northern Illinois got its Boca Raton Bowl bid by winning the Mid-American Conference for the third time in four years. The Huskies played in the conference championship game each of the past five seasons.