Marshall coach Doc Holliday wanted to play the best, highest ranked team he could find for the Thundering Herd’s bowl game.
It turns out the best choice still wasn’t good enough.
Rakeem Cato finished 25-of-37 for 281 yards and five total TDs (three passing, two rushing), while Devon Johnson rushed for 131 yards in Marshall’s 52-23 win over Northern Illinois in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. It was the only bowl, outside of the College Football Playoff, to feature two conference champions.
With the win, Conference USA champion Marshall ends the season at 13-1, with its only blemish coming in a 67-66 overtime battle with Western Kentucky. Mid-American champion Northern Illinois falls to 11-3.
How the game was won: Northern Illinois struggled in the red zone in the first half and just didn’t have the offensive firepower to make up for those early missteps. Three first-half drives saw Northern Illinois reach the 15-, 1- and 13-yard lines of Marshall -- only to come away with a mere six points.
Northern Illinois just couldn’t keep up with Cato and the Marshall offense. Once the Herd’s lead grew to double digits and NIU couldn’t rely on just the run, quarterback Drew Hare couldn’t hit receivers downfield to make the contest any closer. In the end, NIU came away with just one touchdown from five red zone trips.
Game ball goes to: Marshall WR Tommy Shuler. Sure, Cato once again played great -- but Shuler made him look even better. It was one of the best performances of Shuler’s career, as he set season bests in both catches (18) and yards (185). Northern Illinois just didn’t have an answer for him, whether it was double-coverage or putting top CB Paris Logan on him. Shuler constantly found a way to get open.
Cato’s first seven completions all went to Shuler. At the end of the third quarter -- before the game totally got out of hand -- Shuler accounted for 117 of Cato’s 186 passing yards. Shuler even threw a critical block on a second-quarter run to set up a score. He dominated.
It was over when: Cato found Shuler for a 6-yard TD pass midway through the third quarter. The score gave Marshall a commanding 31-13 lead, and Northern Illinois never truly threatened afterward. Shuler showed great focus to get a foot in-bounds, and Cato couldn’t have placed the ball much better.
Best play: Northern Illinois struck first with a touchdown -- but its only lead of the game lasted just 14 seconds. On the ensuing kickoff, Marshall's Deandre Reaves caught the ball at the 7-yard line, found room on the right sideline and sprinted untouched for a 93-yard touchdown. The highlight of the play came around the NIU 45-yard line, when Reaves’ stutter-step faked out the last man he had to beat, the Huskies’ kicker.