That gives defenders a nightmare or two.
"The big part of their strength is [Cato]," said Rice defensive end Cody Bauer. "They don't have any broken plays. If all of their players are covered, he can pull it down and do some damage. The key will be containing that quarterback."
Of the Herd's 317 first downs this season (regardless of which down they were achieved), the trio of Shuler, Hoskins and Cato has made 113 of them. Shuler has 56, Hoskins 31 and Cato 26.
Shuler has caught at least one pass for a first down in 24 consecutive games, last getting skunked at the 2011 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. He thwarts defenses good and bad - for instance, eight of his 10 receptions at Virginia Tech went for first downs.
The on-field communication between Cato and Shuler, boyhood friends from Miami, is almost telepathic. But Cato has become that way with several other targets, Hoskins being a prime example. Remember, Hoskins is the deadly "red zone" threat, scoring 13 touchdowns in his 38 receptions.
"We might call a play; say he throws the ball anywhere else, and he asks me, 'What did you have out there?' " Hoskins said. "I'd let him know, 'I had this and this.' He'd say, 'OK, I see the middle open.'
"And then we'll get a play from the sidelines, we look at each other, we look at the defense, he'd give me a signal, a head nod, eye contact, let me know exactly what he wants - 'I'm coming to you' - and we communicate like that."
At times in their history, ancient and recent, Rice players could spell every word in the English language but "defense." That is certainly not the case this time around, as the Owls are loaded with fifth-year seniors and fourth-year juniors. The cornerbacks are considered the top strength, with the starters combining for seven interceptions.
The Owls' Phillip Gaines is considered an NFL prospect.
"He's just got everything you look for in a lockdown corner," said Rice quarterback Taylor McHargue. "He has weight [6-1, 185] and he's difficult at the line of scrimmage, and he plays the ball well.
"A lot of times, corners don't play the ball well once it's up in the air and that's when they get a lot of [pass interference fouls]. Phil never panics, and that's the thing with Bryce [Callahan], he never panics. That's where you see they don't have a lot of PIs and they have a few interceptions."
Which puts a premium on Cato's decision making and execution, and that of the players around him. But Cato will stress Rice's defense as well, particularly on third down.
Which side will prevail?
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsm...@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.