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."