The streak: 31 and counting
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The first thing to know about Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato's 31-game streak with at least one touchdown pass is this: He started it in coach Doc Holliday's doghouse.
Oh, remember that? Then a true freshman, the Miami native had a meltdown during a 16-6 loss at Central Florida and was sent to the bench in favor of A.J. Graham.
For a brief stretch, it looked as if Graham was going to take the job for good. Then again, Cato never watched an entire game — in the next game against Rice, he entered for two three-and-out series, and they didn't come in mop-up duty. Back to bench.
At Houston the next week, Oct. 22, 2011, he was the janitor. He didn't enter until the Thundering Herd was down 63-21, and his seven-play, 72-yard drive was inconsequential. With 3:35 left in the game, he completed an 8-yard pass to, of all people, Wayne Bonner.
It was Bonner's first, last and only TD reception in a Thundering Herd uniform. Cato, fuzzy as his status was at the time, was just getting started. Neither he nor anybody else knew it at the time.
Cato was just worried about getting his job back.
"Things got real for me," Cato recalled. "Coach made a decision, I had to live with it. Being on the sideline I had to learn from that as a player and as a man."
Cato remained a distant second banana again the next week, when the Herd dismantled Alabama-Birmingham 59-14. Only after Graham flung five TD passes in the game's first 36 minutes did Cato find the field. But he threw his TD pass a little earlier, finding Gator Hoskins for a 34-yard TD on third-and-19.
That came with 10:59 left in the game. Very quietly, the streak went to two games.
Cato regained the starting job for good the next game, though nobody really knew it. Graham was injured trying for a running first down, and Cato's services were needed, albeit with the Herd down 28-3 in a disaster at Tulsa. With the Herd down 49-10, Cato found Aaron Dobson for 31 yards with 5:31 left in the third quarter.
No. 4 in the streak came at Memphis, a 44-yard toss to Antavious Wilson 1:17 into the game. That was forgotten when Cato fumbled his way into a Memphis touchdown, forcing the Herd to rally from down 22-10 to save its bowl hopes.
Cato finally began to look the part again in game No. 5 came against East Carolina, when he threw 77 yards to Dobson on the first play from scrimmage. That wasn't the most-remembered TD catch — it was Cato's lob late in the first half, which Dobson snagged backhanded in that "play of the year" reception.
As it turned out, Cato's last four TD passes of 2011 went to Dobson — those two against ECU, plus 31- and 35-yard tosses to knock out Florida International in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla.
By then, Cato was the lone healthy quarterback. By summer's end, the job was his by default. He had shown flashes of talent and was learning an up-tempo system all but made just for him, and he felt ready to take off.
But as the 2011 season ended, nobody expected Cato to have done what he has now — he is essentially the Herd's No. 3 quarterback in the appropriate statistical categories behind Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich. But he stands alone in one area.
With Marshall preparing to take on Maryland on Friday in the Military Bowl, Cato has thrown one touchdown pass in each of the last 30 games — all those dating back to that mop-up touchdown he threw at Houston 26 months ago.
For those who have played and coached with Cato, that is a really long time ago.
"The thing I like about Cato is he's matured as a person," Hoskins said. "It just shows all the hard work he puts in. He comes to practice ready to work; he's in the film room studying."
On his way to topping Chad Pennington's former record of 26 games, neatly covering all of the 1997 and 1998 seasons, Cato has thrown 81 touchdowns, some more interesting and memorable than others.
The closest the streak came to ending came this season in the Herd's 24-23 win over Florida Atlantic. As the clock ticked under the 7-minute mark, the Herd was in deep trouble, down 23-14 and facing fourth-and-5 at the FAU 41.
In the play that might have saved MU it's East Division title, Cato found Hoskins over the middle, and the tight end wriggled away from a defender for a monumental touchdown.
Cato and Hoskins have hooked up 24 times during the streak, 15 times from the "red zone" area from the 20-yard line and inside. Four of those have come on third-and-goal, five coming on any down from the 1-yard line.
As Hoskins approaches the No. 2 spot on the all-time list — he has 26 to Mike Barber's 27 — he marvels over the chemistry the two have developed in the three years. Hoskins' TD totals have grown from zero as a freshman to three, 10 and 13 this season.
"Doc came to us and said, 'Seniors play their best football in their senior year,'" Hoskins said. "I talked to Cato a lot over the summer, came in, ran a lot of routes. He just told me, 'I'm coming to you a lot this year.'"
As one would expect, Tommy Shuler is a common target with 15 TD catches during the streak. Wilson caught nine touchdowns in Cato's first 18 games of the streak, with Dobson catching eight.
Four times during the streak, Cato has thrown five TDs, with three games of four and seven with three. In two other games this year, he went into the second half to get his only TD of the game — Gardner-Webb and Ohio, the latter coming with 10:24 left in the game.
That owes a bit to the run-pass balance the Herd has cultivated. In 2012, Cato's 37 touchdowns were part of 39 team passing TDs vs. 24 on the ground; this year the split is 39 passing (36 from Cato) to 33 rushing.
A funny thing has happened, though: Perhaps owing to a more effective play-action, Cato has thrown 16 TD passes of 20 or more yards, compared to nine in 2012. Three of his four longest shots (54, 52, 44) have gone to Devon "Moo Moo" Smith, the small but speedy man who has emerged as Dobson's replacement at "X" receiver.
By Bill Legg's reckoning, Cato has better used the running game to become a little deadlier when he throws it downfield. And that's the part of Cato's game everybody raves about these days.
"That young man has matured into a real fine young man," said Legg, MU's offensive coordinator. "I'm not saying he's all the way there — heck, I'm 51 and I'm not all the way there. But as long as he keeps that mindset of tying to improve, not just as a football player but as an individual, on a daily basis ... He's already become pretty special. He has a chance to be very special."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.