Three things to watch in the Boca Raton Bowl, which kicks off 6 p.m. ET Tuesday:
Final game for Marshall QB Rakeem Cato, one of the best players from the Group of Five: If there’s one player to watch Tuesday night, it’s Cato. He’ll be difficult to miss. The senior signal-caller has thrown for 37 touchdowns this season -- only two FBS players have passed for more -- and is No. 8 in the nation with 3,622 passing yards. On top of all that, he has rushed for 457 yards and another six TDs this season. Cato can really do it all, and he has been doing this his whole career.
He has thrown for a TD in an FBS-record 45 straight games, and he boasts more than 12,000 career passing yards and 120 TDs. He doesn’t have the strongest arm and stands just 6-foot-1, but he has a knack for finding the big play. There’s no telling where he’ll fit in at the next level, so this could be his final game at quarterback. It should be a treat.
Two conference champions going at it: Outside of the College Football Playoff, this is the only bowl game between conference champions -- Marshall from Conference USA and Northern Illinois from the MAC. Thundering Herd coach Doc Holliday could’ve chosen a different bowl, with a Power 5 opponent, but he told the Sun Sentinel that the Huskies were the highest-ranked opponent available and that Marshall wanted the biggest challenge it could find.
These teams have some of the best players the Group of Five has to offer. Ten Marshall players earned first-team all-conference honors this season, as the Herd swept the conference awards for coach of the year (Holliday), offensive player of the year (Cato) and defensive player of the year (Neville Hewitt). As for Northern Illinois, 10 players earned spots on one of the three all-MAC teams, with two offensive linemen finding a spot on the first team. Defensive end Jason Meehan, who’s second in the conference with seven sacks, was one of six NIU defensive players to make the list.
Two of the nation’s top 15 rushing offenses: Both teams led their respective conferences in rushing, and both were among the best in the nation. Only five FBS teams averaged more rushing yards per game than Marshall (275.6), and none boasted a higher yards-per-carry average (6.88). Northern Illinois didn’t fare much worse. It’s ranked No. 13 nationally with 252.9 rushing yards per game and averaged 5.15 yards a carry.
The Huskies are more of a one-dimensional offense, but they at least have multiple rushing threats. Cameron Stingily, a 235-pound back, leads the team with 895 yards, but dual-threat QB Drew Hare follows right behind with 850 yards. Marshall’s offense can do a little bit of everything, but its rushing star is clearly Devon Johnson, who dealt with knee issues the past few games but still has 1,636 yards. If Johnson needs a breather, smaller-but-quicker Steward Butler could take over. He rushed for 233 yards against Western Kentucky.