HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - For Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato, the toughest part of the season-ending loss last year at East Carolina was not being able to finish the bout.
And it was a bout. It had to be for Cato - the way the defenses were outclassed on this November evening, he was trading shots with ECU's Shane Carden.
First, Cato threw 32 yards for a touchdown to Aaron Dobson. Carden came back with a 59-yard bomb to Jabril Solomon.
From the Marshall 12-yard line, Carden rushed four out of five plays to give ECU a 14-7 lead. By the time he ran for another TD to put the Pirates up 28-7, he was 10 of 11 for 175 yards.
Cato answered with a 24-yard TD pass to Tommy Shuler, an 8-yard flip to Antavious Wilson and a 19-yard shot to Shuler cut the ECU lead to 35-28 at halftime. When he threw his fifth TD, a 2-yarder to Wilson early in the third quarter, the game was tied at 35.
But after Carden drove the Pirates 75 yards to take a 42-35 lead, the battle royale ended abruptly when Cato hobbled off with a knee injury.
Cato tried to return to start the fourth quarter, but that lasted one play. He was blitzed into throwing a third-down incompletion, forcing MU to settle for a field goal. Cato had to settle for a 310-yard outing, as Blake Frohnapfel continued the fight.
Carden won the war, throwing for 439 yards and three touchdowns, and running for three. His last one, a 1-yarder in the second overtime, gave ECU a 65-59 double-overtime win and knocked MU out of the bowl picture.
To this day, Cato feels he should have done more.
"I wanted to do the right thing for the team, and I think Froh handled the situation good," he said. "When I did get back in the game, they started all-out blitzing. I figured I've got to get out of here."
Cato and Carden will have their rematch when their teams meet at noon Friday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. The stakes are huge, as the winner takes the East Division title in Conference USA.
Carden seems to be favored to win the league's Most Valuable Player award that Cato snagged a year ago. The numbers tell the tale: 72.8 percent completion rate, 3,575 yards, 32 touchdowns vs. seven interceptions and a 159.5 efficiency rating. With an average of 325 yards per game, Carden should blast through the 4,000-yard barrier.
With 3,042 yards, Cato would have to average 386.3 yards over three games to reach his 2012 total of 4,201 yards. That would have to include the C-USA championship game plus Friday's game and the impending bowl game.
Not that he couldn't do it - he threw for a career-high 456 yards at run-sniffing Tulsa - but he doesn't have to with his backfield trio of Essray Taliaferro, Steward Butler and Kevin Grooms. Not to mention Cato himself, as he had netted 248 yards and scored four touchdowns running.
His ability to wiggle out of trouble, keep his eyes downfield and find open spaces to pick up a first down always puts opponents on notice.
"He looks like he's improved in some areas," said ECU free safety Damon Magazu. "He's obviously a great athlete. He can throw the ball on you, but he can also use his feet to get some first downs, if it's third-and-short or something.
"He's a dual-threat quarterback; we've faced a lot of those this year, and he does a good job of keeping his eyes downfield even when he's scrambling. So we've got to make sure we clamp on the receivers once he's scrambling, gets out of the pocket."
Cato, the junior from Miami, is expected to start his 33rd game Friday. He won the starting job as a freshman, lost a few starts in a disciplinary move and won the job back for good when A.J. Graham got hurt - and then got himself tossed out of the program.
After throwing two touchdowns to win the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, Cato picked up coordinator Bill Legg's hyper-tempo offense quickly and has 9,302 career passing yards to show for it. He is becoming quite the maestro in running the offense, and Legg often says he and Cato usually think alike.
"Just growing. I feel like [if] you're going to play the sport of football, you have to grow," Cato said. "I've grown a lot, matured a lot, on and off the field - understanding the game of football, recognizing the defense, recognizing what people try to do to us.
"[I'm] a lot different from day one."
After barely playing in 2011, Carden lost to Rio Johnson in a preseason battle for the starting job last year. After Johnson threw three interceptions in the second week against South Carolina, Carden played well in relief.
The 6-foot-2, 218-pound Houston native started the next week, led the Pirates to a 24-14 win over Southern Mississippi and has started ever since. With 11 300-yard games and three topping 400, he is 309 yards away from hitting the 7,000-yard barrier.
Like Cato, Carden has grown up substantially in his 22 starts. By the time Marshall visited ECU last November, Carden was well in command of coordinator Lincoln Riley's Texas Tech-type attack.
Carden said there wasn't a particular game in which the switch flipped.
"I think each game I got more confident in myself and what this offense was doing," Carden said. "I think Coach Riley kind of opens up more opportunities for me to check, more plays for me to make. I feel more comfortable, and we just do a great job of expanding and getting better each week."
Magazu said, "My freshman year, he redshirted, so I played against him on the scout team. I mean, that's a pretty good scout-team quarterback. He gave us a lot of trouble on the scout team, and I've seen him progress over the years, and we've grown together. He's a great competitor, whether it be out on the field, weight room.
"And he's smart. I think that's the big thing - he knows when to throw it out of bounds, when he can get a couple of yards with his feet."
The ultimate goal Friday for both teams is to win and advance to the C-USA title game on Dec. 7, but Cato and Carden admit to being pumped up a big about a matchup between the league's clear-cut top two.
"I think a little," Carden said. "When he's on the field I'm not [but] I understand what he's done, he's a great quarterback. I looked at him last year, the stats he was [compiling], it was something I wanted to accomplish.
"It's always fun to go against a good quarterback and another good offense."
Cato said of Carden and ECU, "They have a great group of guys on offense that can score at will. We've got to be ready to match them and our defense has to be ready to stop them."
Let Conference USA's QB duel resume.
Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsm...@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.
A statistical comparison between Conference USA's top two quarterbacks, Marshall's Rakeem Cato and East Carolina's Shane Carden: