Marshall football: Cato more prepared for hostile WVU fans
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Marshall University quarterback Rakeem Cato was feeling OK last year under center during the Thundering Herd's game at West Virginia University. Well, he was feeling as OK as a true freshman making his first start could.
Then came the Herd's first third down. And then came the bells. Along with the AC/DC song. And tens of thousands of screaming Mountaineer fans.
"I never heard that before," Cato said of those tolling bells. "When it happened, it was really shocking ... like, wow, this place is really loud."
It was a jarring initiation into college football, but it's now something the sophomore knows is coming and something he doesn't have to worry about when the Herd visits WVU on Saturday (Noon, FX) at Milan Puskar Stadium.
When Marshall Coach Doc Holliday named Cato the starter on the Tuesday before the team's 2011 clash with WVU, he became the Herd's first true freshman starting quarterback since Chad Pennington was thrust into service in 1995. Cato said before that game that the pro-Mounties crowd could scream as loud as it wanted. But he admits now that when he took the field in Morgantown, he couldn't completely shut out the wild scene.
"My head was going crazy," he said. "Running out there on the field, and that first drive ... everybody's out there. It's a big crowd. It all hit on third down when the bells went off and it got really loud. Everybody stood up and got loud. It kind of hit me there."
As far as debuts go, it was far from a nightmare. The Herd lost 34-13 in that storm-shortened game, but Cato completed 15 of 21 passes for 115 yards, was sacked just once and stayed turnover free. His teammates lauded his ability to fight through the noise.
Senior receiver Aaron Dobson is a veteran of the Marshall-WVU series, and he couldn't fathom the situation in which Cato found himself. Being a freshman starter at any position is tough. But when you're a quarterback, charged with touching the ball on every offensive play and guiding the rest of the offense, the difficulty level vaults exponentially.
"You could tell at the beginning of the game ... I knew he was ready, but he was a freshman," he said. "He didn't know what to expect. He was a little big-eyed. But you definitely saw through the game that he calmed down and started playing better. I think he handled it really well."
Sophomore receiver Tommy Shuler has been a teammate of Cato's from the youth leagues in Miami, Fla., to Miami Central High School to Marshall. He was on the field with Cato for that first third down versus WVU and said it was impossible to hear the snap count. While some rookie starters' heads may droop when times get tough, Shuler said Cato kept his up.
"He stood in there the whole game," Shuler said. "He made bad plays and he made good plays, but overall, he didn't let it get to him."
Now Cato will walk into Morgantown with no surprises in terms of the atmosphere. The WVU crowd gave him a crash course in hostile environments, and he finished his inaugural year with nine starts in 13 games, throwing for 2,059 yards and 15 touchdowns and leading the team to a win over Florida International in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.
Cato said he learned some valuable lessons from that WVU game.
"Just go out there and have fun," he said. "Let nothing get to you, the fan base, the crowd. Just go play football, stick to the system and do the best you can do."
That's what he'll try to do this year. WVU's defense has switched to a 3-4 scheme from the 3-3-5, so there will be a hint of the unexpected. It just won't come from the stands. In fact, Cato said he can't wait to run into the stadium again.
"I'm looking forward to the crowd," he said.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.