Herd rolls by NIU

Published 4:40 am Wednesday, December 24, 2014

BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) — Quarterback Rakeem Cato and receiver Tommy Shuler have played together since high school, so they were able to communicate without a lot of conversation Tuesday in their final game for Marshall.

“We don’t need to talk,” Shuler said. “Just a head nod.”

What does a head nod mean?

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“I’m open.”

He was, time and time again. Shuler and Cato capped their careers with record-setting performances in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl to help Marshall beat Northern Illinois 52-23.

Cato tied an NCAA mark for touchdown passes, threw for three scores and was voted the most valuable player. Shuler had 18 receptions for 185 yards and broke the Conference USA record for career catches with 322.

Cato and Shuler were high school teammates in nearby Miami, and they gave a large throng of family and friends plenty to cheer about.

“To do that playing your final game in your backyard is special,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “They’re just tremendous players, and they’re great friends.”

Marshall finished 13-1, with its lone loss to Western Kentucky, 67-66 in overtime. Northern Illinois finished 11-3.

“Give credit to Marshall; they made a ton of plays,” Huskies coach Rod Carey said.

“I didn’t think we played real well, and that’s too bad because we’ve had an unbelievable season.”

Cato extended his streak of throwing at least one touchdown pass to 46 consecutive games. That tied the NCAA all-division record set by Central Washington’s Mike Reilly.

As usual, Cato’s favorite target was Shuler.

“Anybody who knows Shuler, against a man-to-man matchup, he’s going to hurt you,” Cato said. “I’m going to continue to go at him until they show me something different, and they didn’t show me anything different.”

Cato finished the season with a school-record 40 touchdown passes. He threw for scores of 6 yards to Shuler, 11 yards to Angelo Jean-Louis and 27 yards to Deon-Tay McManus.

All of those touchdowns came in the second half. Cato completed 25 of 37 passes for 281 yards and ran 5 yards for a score.

“Cato made the plays when he needed to,” Huskies safety Dechane Durante said.

The game drew a crowd of less than 15,000 in Florida Atlantic’s 30,000-seat stadium, but both coaches praised the inaugural event.

“This will be a huge bowl,” Holliday said. “The community has embraced this bowl, and when all is said and done, it’s going to be one of the best bowls in America.”

Marshall tried a bit of trickery early in the game, when Shuler took the ball and lobbed it into the end zone to Cato for an 11-yard touchdown. But the play was negated by a penalty.

“If Tommy wouldn’t have made such a bad pass, we would’ve had it,” Holliday said with a grin.

The tandem did better with Cato throwing. All seven of his completions in the first half went to Shuler.

“He made tough catches and easy catches and made people miss,” Carey said.

Cato wore No. 31 instead of his familiar No. 12 to honor teammate Evan McKelvey, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in October.

Deandre Reaves scored Marshall’s first touchdown on a 93-yard kickoff return. Devon Johnson ran for 131 yards and a score for the Thundering Herd, who totaled 505 yards

The Huskies’ Drew Hare threw for 225 yards and a score, and they added 200 on the ground. They outgained Marshall in the first half but trailed 24-13 because they settled for field goal tries three times and missed one.

Northern Illinois pulled off a successful onside kick to start the second half but lost the ball four plays later when Arnold Blackmon stopped Cameron Stingily for no gain on fourth and 1 at midfield.

The Thundering Herd mounted touchdown drives of 56, 68 and 70 yards on consecutive possessions in the second half to lead 38-20.

The win gave the Thundering Herd bowl victories in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2001-02.