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Marshall football: Cato wants better results this time vs. UCF

HUNTINGTON - Last season's 16-6 loss to the University of Central Florida wasn't Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato's finest moment, either on the field or on the sideline.

He threw for just 87 yards on 11-for-29 passing, just one week after leading the Thundering Herd to a huge win at Louisville. Television cameras also caught him losing his composure on the sideline phone during a conversation with quarterbacks Coach Tony Petersen. The following Tuesday, A.J. Graham was named Marshall's starting quarterback.

While that was one of Cato's toughest experiences at Marshall, it also prepared him for a major comeback. Cato regained the reins of the offense following Graham's shoulder injury, and he's gripped that job like a vise ever since, becoming one of college football's most prolific passers.

That's the quarterback Cato wants to be when the Knights (5-2, 3-0 C-USA) visit Marshall (3-4, 2-1) at 8 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network).

Nobody on Marshall's offense had a good game that night in Orlando, as the Herd slogged through a monsoon.

"I know when I was in I couldn't really see," sophomore receiver Tommy Shuler said. "I know he couldn't see back there, it was raining so hard."

But Cato won't blame that night on the rain, nor will he blame it on his youth. He was a true freshman starting his sixth game of his collegiate career. He said his sideline outburst should never have happened, that there were so many other ways he could have handled the situation.

"That's not an excuse, me being young," he said. "I take full responsibility for that. I apologized to Coach Petersen and the whole team after the game. That's not an excuse, being young, because I know right from wrong."

That apology to his team went a long way with his teammates. Linebacker Billy Mitchell said he was very impressed when he watched the freshman Cato own up to his missteps.

"He manned up to his mistakes," Mitchell said. "That's hard for most players to do, to say 'I was wrong.' He's embraced the role as the leader and the quarterback here."

Returning to the role of on-field leader took a little time. For the next four games, Cato had to watch Graham - the player he beat out for the No. 1 job in the preseason - take the first-team snaps and thrive there. Playing back-up was a foreign concept to him. He'd started from youth leagues through high school. Yet he gained perspective during that span.

"I taught me that anything can be taken away from you," he said. "Just keep working hard and don't stop believing. Don't stop achieving. I still worked hard every day. I still gave the first-team defense great looks in practice. I just kept learning until my number was called again."

And when coaches called his number again, after Graham hurt his shoulder against Tulsa, he was ready. He led the Herd to three straight wins to close the season, including a Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl win over Florida International University. And this season he's at or near the top of the Football Bowl Subdivision rankings in every major passing category - first in total passing yards (2,651), passing yards per game (378.71) and completions per game (35.57), second in total offense per game (384.86 yards), fifth in touchdown passes (21) and 25th in passing efficiency (148.87).

Shuler said Cato, his friend and teammate since the sixth grade, didn't let the demotion defeat him. In fact, it made him better.

"That made him realize that he needed to be thankful for what he got and to be humble," Shuler said."That's a lesson he learned and he embraced it."

Cato learned to hone his trademark fire and energy into focus and intensity and to keep a cooler head when games go awry. Sixth-year guard John Bruhin has seen Cato mature in a short time and become one of Marshall's leaders.

"All the experiences he's gone through always help a quarterback grow, even those periods where it's not going your way," he said. "But all those experiences build up and make Cato what he is today. He kept his head on strong and everyone pushed and stayed behind him, and he's become a great quarterback."

Now Cato gets the Knights on his home turf, and his teammates would love to see him continue his torrid passing streak.

"I hope he comes out this week and has an excellent performance," defensive end Alex Bazzie said.

"Just to prove to that team, specifically, that last year was last year and it won't be the same this year."

 Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.redd@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall.


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