Doug Smock: Cato shows brilliance
BOCA RATON, Fla. - It seems like such a benign little statistical tidbit: Rakeem Cato has thrown for more than 1,500 yards in three consecutive seasons.
So what? Shouldn't every starting Marshall quarterback throw for 1,500 in season? Half a season? Two games? Before halftime of the season opener?
But, as the MU stat gurus told us, there are only four throwers in school history top 1,500 yards, then do it again and again. The other three?
Michael Payton, Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich.
Nice little list, eh?
OK, let's toss that tidbit away. You know the real link between those three, right? Give them the ball with two minutes left and the opposition is doomed. Timeouts are not needed.
The 1992 Division I-AA championship game? Payton. The 1999 Mid-American Conference championship? Pennington. The 2002 Miracle in Mobile? Leftwich.
Saturday night on the picturesque Florida Atlantic campus, Cato began his campaign to join this list. With a few head-turning big plays, he engineered the game-winning drive in the final 2:06, allowing Justin Haig to boot the Thundering Herd to a 24-23 victory over the Owls.
Cato has won 14 of his starts in a green jersey, and he has rallied the Herd to four wins in the fourth quarter - two in two-minute drills that ended in Haig field goals. (Houston, 2012 is the other.)
But this one stands it all sorts of ways, good, bad and ugly.
The bad? Oh, let's just skip to the ugly - as in Cato's performance in the first 50 minutes.
After watching the Miami native develop pinpoint accuracy over two-plus seasons, it was horrifying to watch him miss everything high and/or wide. I mean everything - of all those errant throws, I don't recall a single short-hopper.
It was crazy. Cato relinquished the all-time lead in completion percentage, (CHECK), was off the rails. Was it the adrenaline from playing in south Florida in front of his peeps? Was it underestimation of an unfamiliar, oft-disrespected opponent? Both, and more?
Whatever it was, the Herd was in a world of hurt. Cato's first three throws of the fourth quarter were an overthrown bomb to Devon "Moo Moo" Smith, a hurried misfire to Tommy Shuler and a what-the-heck-was-that sideline fling in Davonte Allen's general direction.
After the punt, FAU drove 64 yards in seven plays to take a 23-14 lead with 10:01 left. At that point, Cato was 11 of 23 for 110 yards and was lucky to have just one interception. (Then again, he overthrew the defenders, too.)
Marshall was teetering on the edge of doom in one of those "uh, oh" games. If you bet the Herd with the 12-point spread, you were throwing you money on the floor - and it wasn't like you weren't warned.
"I keep telling you guys all the time, if you're located right here in Boca and you've got three stadiums [where] you can go out and look out at the beach, you'll have pretty good players [if] you do your job."
I got the message, Doc, even picking you to lose. In four decades of watching MU football from multiple perspectives, I've seen this show before.
But like his predecessors, Cato threw out the script.
Believe this about Cato: He doesn't worry about the last throw, or the 20 before that. He doesn't necessarily have that "ice water in the veins" thing; he just runs the next play. Again, it's a byproduct of his Liberty City upbringing - he just doesn't feel pressure on the gridiron.
"Positive, as always," he said. "Every time I go on the field I go with a positive mindset. Just so happened it was the last drive, do it all for Marshall, do it all for the team. That's all I thought about, just go out there and go play hard."
In true Marshall tradition, this drive from the 9-yard line was one long test of will, with a dash of craziness. Cato's first act to notice an acre of unoccupied Bermuda grass and run for 20 yards.
Oh, yeah, he threw that forward toss to Shuler. We've come to expect at least one silly play a game from Cato, and that qualifies. Good thing he got credit for his yardage to the penalty flag.
More impressive was Cato's 6-yard run on third-and-1, which I'm still trying to grasp. FAU had a better-than-average pass rush, and the Owls were an arm's length away from a clock-busting sack that would have forced fourth down.
Following was another attempt at the deep ball to Smith, the 5-foot-7 speedster playing "X" receiver because ... just because. This bomb one was on target.
It looked a bit short on your TV, if you had channel 509 in Charleston, but that was by design. Smith isn't going to win an old-fashioned "jump ball" against any corner, as Aaron Dobson would have a year ago. Cato went to Smith's back shoulder and Smith put on the brakes, letting the corner overrun the play.
Pretty good throw, better catch by one of this team's big-play wonders.
With a 77-yard punt return early in the game, Smith showed why Holliday nabbed him during the Penn State implosion. Craig Wilkins, back at "Z" after a week's absence, had a filthy 28-yard reception to the FAU 1, setting up a third-quarter touchdown.
Remember Gator Hoskins? His 41-yard touchdown catch and run on fourth-and-5 was one part execution, 99 parts determination, and cut FAU's lead to 23-21. It was his finest moment.
So why am I blubbering over this win? Yes, the stakes were smaller than they were in the finest moments of Payton, Pennington and Leftwich, but this game wasn't insignificant.
When Herd players landed Saturday night in Huntington, they did so in first place in the East Division, thanks to an East Carolina loss. They're two wins away from an early lockup of bowl eligibility. Their 4-2 start is the first since 2009, second since 2002.
Most important, this stare-down with adversity showed that Marshall just might be contending material. And it showed that Cato, with a league MVP award already in his pocket, just might join the Payton-Pennington-Leftwich conversation.
If he does, it will be a hoot (sorry for the pun, FAU) to watch.
I do not come here today to second-guess the coaching.
I won't wonder why the Herd didn't play Devon Johnson at fullback on a fourth-and-inches run, which didn't go well. I won't split hairs over Holliday's decision to sit on the ball and run the clock down in the final seconds, giving Haig that 41-yard attempt. I won't wonder why Cato didn't get the red light on the deep ball.
But here, I shall conduct a one-issue coaching clinic, costing you nothing more than the effort to read this column. Easier than that: I will give the clinic in on sentence, repeated.
Don't "ice" the kicker. Ever.
This is the one of the three most cliché, ineffective maneuvers a head coach can use. You can argue it worked for Marshall in the second overtime at Virginia Tech, but I'm not buying it. That was just a lousy kick by a second-string kicker.
Icing the kicker is a waste of everybody's time, except that of the kicker. It gives him time for his heart rate to stabilize, to get a couple of practice swings and just relax. I'd make a joke about kickers being too flaky to recognize pressure, but I'll pass.
Try this sometime, golfers: Park your car at your favorite golf course, get your driver, ball and tee out of the car, run to the No. 1 tee and try to whack away immediately. On your next trip, repeat the process but take a two-minute break before your tee shot.
FAU coach Carl Pelini is the latest of billion to come up empty. One more time: Icing the kicker does not work.
It does not work. It does not work. It does not work.
Cato's career completion percentage fell to 64.82 percent, behind Leftwich's 65.12 percent.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5140, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.