Under the lights in Boca Raton, FL, Marshall defeated Northern Illinois in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl on Tuesday evening, 52 - 23. The game's MVP, senior quarterback Rakeem Cato, finished the Herd's 13th win of the season with 281 yards and three passing touchdowns. Cato also scored two rushing touchdowns. Wide receiver Tommy Shuler caught Cato's first seven passes and finished with 18 catches for 185 yards, one touchdown and the C-USA record for most career receptions with 321.
Northern Illinois scored the first points in Boca Raton Bowl history after Drew Hare found a wide-open Juwan Brescacin for a 19-yard touchdown. Marshall quickly answered on the ensuing kick-off with a DeAndre Reaves 93-yard kick return to level the game at 7.
"He was back peddling," said Reaves after the game. "So once he turned his hips I knew I had to make one move and stuck to one side and used my speed."
After a weak NIU punt, Rakeem Cato found Tommy Shuler three times to put the Thundering Herd within striking distance. A read-option by Cato faked out the entire Husky defense and the senior quarterback tip-toed into the end-zone untouched.
The two teams traded field goals -- after a little #MACkicking misstep -- to begin the second quarter, but it would be Marshall that struck next as Cato found Shuler for his seventh reception of the half. With the Herd in the red-zone, a rumbling, stumbling Devon Johnson -- who finished with 131 yards and one touchdown -- would convert from two yards out to push the MU lead back to 14 points. Christian Hagan nailed a 30-yard field goal to inch the Huskies back, but Marshall would head into the locker room at the half with a 24-13 lead.
Cato finally recorded his record-setting touchdown pass with 6:39 left in the third quarter after finding Tommy Shuler -- again -- from six yards out. The touchdown marks Cato's 46th straight game with a touchdown pass.
"We just give a head nod and he knows I have his back and to throw me the ball. We don't need to talk. It means I'm open," Shuler said regarding his in-game communication with Cato.
Northern Illinois wasted no time answering with points of their own. Drew Hare -- who finished with 225 yards and one touchdown -- found Aregeros Turner for a spectacular 30-yard completion. Cameron Stingily went full-on "beast mode" on the following play as he rammed his way into the endzone from 24 yards out.
With such a quick score, the Herd steadied the ship and drove down the field behind a few Devon Johnson bull-dozing runs. Rakeem Cato struck again with an 11-yard touchdown to Angelo Jean-Louis and Marshall entered the fourth quarter with a 38-20 lead. Cato would not be finished there and on the ensuing Herd drive, he found Deon-Tay McManus for his 40th touchdown pass of the season -- a Marshall single-season record.
Marshall head coach Doc Holliday had great things to say about Cato after the game. "That's just him, when he's on the biggest stages he rallies," said the veteran coach who agreed to a contract extension prior to kick-off. "I've won national titles and I've been around a lot of future NFL quarterbacks and he's the most competitive quarterback I've ever coached. He's just a tremendous, tremendous quarterback who's overcome a lot of adversity. You want the ball in his hands with the game on the line and he's going to find a way to get it done."
The Boca Raton Bowl victory marks Marshall's 13th victory of the season and completes a fairy tale season for the Herd veterans. NIU finishes their season at 11-3, but with a MAC championship under their belts.