GALLERY: Marshall brings the Boca Raton Bowl championship and numerous records back to Huntington

Head coach Doc Holliday doing his job at the Boca Raton Bowl Tuesday in Boca Raton, Florida.

Many Thundering Herd football players were back in their home state Tuesday playing in front of family and friends in the Boca Raton Bowl.

Two of those players, quarterback Rakeem Cato and wide receiver Tommy Shuler, treated those who were in attendance. Cato and Shuler connected early and often, leading the Herd to a 52-23 victory over Northern Illinois University.

To be able to take this game ball back to Jane, his wife, I know Dr. Kopp, he’s smiling up there somewhere because he’d be proud of this football team.

— Doc Holliday


At halftime, all seven of Cato’s passes were to Shuler and by the end of the game, the senior wide receiver totaled 18 receptions for 185 yard and one touchdown, and he held a new school record. In the first half, Shuler became Marshall’s all-time leader in receptions, passing Josh Davis with 307.

Shuler said the win is a result of consistent hard work, and it comes with added importance with the recent losses to the Marshall University family.

“It feels great, all of the hard work we put in, our team needed this win,” Shuler said. “We worked so hard in the offseason just to continue to go out there like that and do it for Dr. Kopp and Chad Pennington’s father, it’s amazing.”

The team wore stickers on the back of its helmets to honor Pennington’s father, who died Dec. 15, and Marshall President Stephen J. Kopp, who died Dec. 17.

Head coach Doc Holliday said he knows Kopp would be proud of the team’s performance.

“To be able to take this game ball back to Jane, his wife, I know Dr. Kopp, he’s smiling up there somewhere because he’d be proud of this football team,” Holliday said.

The Herd dominated the Huskies with a balanced offense that it’s displayed all season. Running back Devon Johnson returned to action after being injured during the last few games and led the rushing attack with 18 carries and 185 yards with a touchdown.

Holliday credited the offensive players and staffs with sticking to what it has done all year and taking what opposing defenses give it.

“I think Cato, coach [Bill] Legg, and that offensive staff do a great job of taking what the defense gives us,” Holliday said. “They’ve done that all year, and this was just another example.”

Aside from the offense, two specific plays by the defense and special teams set the tone for what would eventually be a Herd win.

Trailing 7-0 halfway through the first quarter, NIU kicked off to Deandre Reaves, who had been close to running a kick back for a touchdown multiple times throughout the season. Well, Tuesday he did.

Reaves took the kickoff 93 yards to the house for a game-tying touchdown.

After the game, Reaves said he knew when the kicker was the only potential tackler between him and the end zone, he could and would score.

“He was backpedaling, so once he turned his hips I was like ‘I’m going to make my move,’” Reaves said. “Once I had him I just used my speed.”

From that point forward, the Herd would outscore the Huskies 52-23.

The second, and arguably, biggest moment in the game came very early in the third quarter after NIU surprised the Herd with an onside kick and recovery. The Marshall defense, despite being put in a tough situation, came out and shut the Huskies down on four straight plays, stuffing NIU running back Cameron Stingily on fourth and one.

Although the Herd offense did not answer with a score right away, it was able to win a battle of field position that would lead to a nine-play, 56-yard drive that ended with a touchdown pass from Cato to Shuler. The touchdown would mark the 46th consecutive game in which the senior quarterback threw a touchdown pass, tying an NCAA all-division record.

Cato would also add to his list of broken records this season by breaking a record he previously held with Pennington. His 27-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Deon-Tay McManus early in the fourth quarter not only put the Herd up 45-20, but also sealed the win. It also gave Cato 40 touchdowns on the season, breaking his previous school record of 39.

Cato, who finished with 306 total yards and 5 total touchdowns, said he was thankful to be a part of the Marshall football program and able to contribute to its future.

“The sky’s the limit for this team next year, and it’s a blessing just to be a part of it,” Cato said.

As for the future of the football program, reports surfaced early Tuesday that Marshall and Holliday were working on a contract extension. After the game, Holliday confirmed the accuracy of those reports and said expectations are high for next year’s football team.

“The standard has been set at Marshall and expectations have been set,” Holliday said. “We expect to be great every year. We don’t expect to rebuild, we expect to reload. We’ve got good young players, we’re going to miss [the seniors], no doubt, but we expect next year to play like we did this year because that’s what we do.”

Marshall will open the 2015 season at home against the Purdue University Boilermakers.

Shannon Stowers can be contacted at [email protected].