Herd makes final preparations for Boca Raton Bowl

“Going off with a win, a championship and a bowl win, that would be big.”

More stories from Shannon Stowers

For some, Boca Raton, Florida, is a vacation destination, but if you ask the members of the Marshall University football team, it’s just the location of their final business trip this season.

The Thundering Herd has been treated to a party on the beach and a trip to the bowling alley since its arrival in Boca Raton Friday. The team also had its final practice Sunday; something that senior defensive end James Rouse said is just beginning to sink in.

“I’m realizing this is my last time being able to watch film and be with the guys,” Rouse said. “Everybody is really just realizing that and realizing the last practice we had was our last practice.”

For players who are not seniors, though, a bowl win over the Northern Illinois Huskies could send returning players into the spring on a positive note. Senior linebacker Neville Hewitt said capping this season off with a win would be motivation for those returning next year.

“To get these guys off with a win and going into next year would have everybody positive,” Hewitt said. “Going off with a win, a championship and a bowl win, that would be big. That would make those guys work even harder because they know it’s going to be even harder to do the same thing again next year.”

The Herd will face a Huskies team that is coming into the bowl game with an 11-2 (7-1) record after finishing as Mid-American Conference champions.

Rouse said he is excited about two conference champions squaring off, something that rarely happens in bowl games, other than the national championship.

“Northern Illinois is a great team, a great opponent, a champion,” Rouse said. “So it’s good to be able to play a champion. That’s a rare thing to do, to be able to play a champion.”

When the Herd takes the field, it will be wearing two stickers on its helmets in honor of the passing of university President Stephen J. Kopp and Elwood Pennington, father of former Herd quarterback Chad Pennington.

Senior quarterback Rakeem Cato said the love that Kopp showed toward athletics is reason enough for the team to put forth its best effort.

“To see how much love he had for his university, for every sport, not just football, every sport that’s a part of Marshall University,” Cato said. “It’s mandatory for us and myself to really go out there and give it our best and come back with a win. It’s mandatory for me to leave everything out on the field and to try to lead my team to a victory.”

Cato will also be wearing a different number than Marshall fans are used to. Throughout this season Herd players on the defensive side of the ball have rotated the No.31 jersey in honor of Evan McKelvey who was previously injured.

Cato initially went to McKelvey with the idea, and when McKelvey approved, he finalized the plans with head coach Doc Holliday.

“I wanted to wear it all year” Cato said. “It’s a huge blessing to represent McKelvey. He’d die to be out there tomorrow with us. He’s a huge player for us and a huge success for Marshall University.”

The will take on the Huskies at 6 p.m. Tuesday. The Boca Raton Bowl will be televised on ESPN.

Shannon Stowers can be contacted at [email protected].