HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Rice football Coach David Bailiff offered about as high of praise as he could Tuesday for Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato. He compared last year's Conference USA MVP - who will lead the Thundering Herd against the Owls in Saturday's noon C-USA title game (ESPN2) - to last year's Heisman Trophy winner.
"He's very similar to what Johnny Manziel can do at (Texas) A&M when he comes out of the pocket," Bailiff said. "He extends the plays, he allows receivers to get separation and he's very accurate throwing the ball when he runs."
The Owls (9-3, 7-1 C-USA) faced "Johnny Football" for two quarters in their season opener Aug. 31. Manziel had to sit the first two quarters as punishment for his offseason autograph flap. When he did enter the game after halftime, he threw for 94 yards and three touchdowns on 6-of-8 passing and gained 19 yards on six carries. What was a 28-21 halftime lead for the Aggies ended up a 52-31 win.
Cato remains a standout passer. He's thrown for 3,314 yards and completed 59.4 percent of his passes. His 34 touchdown throws are the seventh-highest total in team history (his 37 touchdowns last season tied him for third-best) and he's thrown just eight interceptions.
Yet Cato also has evolved as a runner. He's fourth on the team with 254 rushing yards and is tied for third on the Herd with six rushing touchdowns.
"I think it's preparation, but also an innate ability to have an internal time clock for when they need to get out of the pocket and where the pressure is coming from," Bailiff said. "But you don't get as good as (Cato) is without a lot of hard work.
"I think he's got that same feel of when somebody's about to hit him from behind," he added. "He knows how to step forward and circle out of the pocket and he has the innate ability to do that. That's what the great one's have."
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TUESDAY'S C-USA CHAMPIONSHIP coaches' conference call allowed for an unexpected pre-game meeting between Bailiff and Herd Coach Doc Holliday. Holliday hadn't hung up the phone before Bailiff was introduced.
"You've done a tremendous job," Holliday told Bailiff.
"What you've done in the last two years, I hope people realize what you have done, because you've done a tremendous job."
"Well, thank you," Bailiff replied.