Marshall thunders to victory over Northern Illinois in Boca Raton Bowl

Marshall receiver Tommy Shuler is tackled short of the goal line by Northern Illinois University linebacker Rasheen Lemon during the first half of the Boca Raton Bowl at FAU Stadium on Dec. 23, 2014.
Marshall receiver Tommy Shuler is tackled short of the goal line by Northern Illinois University linebacker Rasheen Lemon during the first half of the Boca Raton Bowl at FAU Stadium on Dec. 23, 2014. Sun Sentinel

Rakeem Cato and Tommy Shuler have been playing football together since they were 8.

Tuesday night in Boca raton, the longtime friends from Liberty City likely played their final game as teammates.

At least they went out in grand style.

Cato passed for 281 yards with Shuler being on the receiving end of 185 of them as Marshall rolled Northern Illinois 52-23 at the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl.

For the former Miami Central standouts, being able to end their collegiate careers just two counties north of where it all began meant something as they shared the moment with family and friends who made the drive up I-95.

“This was very special. When I first heard we were coming here, my eyes lit up,” said Cato, who completed seven passes in the opening half — all to Shuler. In all, Shuler caught 18 of Cato’s 25 completions.

“It’s not just me. We have 30-plus guys here from Florida and their families love seeing us play. It was a huge blessing for us to be able to come here and play.”

Shuler set the Marshall career reception record in the first quarter when he caught four passes for 49 yards.

The two kept it up as Cato, named game MVP, didn't complete his first pass to someone other than Shuler until early in the third quarter.

Cato and Shuler's 6-yard touchdown connection in the third helped put the game away as Marshall led 31-13.

Cato ends his career by throwing at least one touchdown pass in an FBS-record 46 consecutive games. He also broke his own school record by throwing 40 touchdown passes this season.

In four seasons at Marshall, Cato threw 131 touchdowns.

“I'm just happy we got the win,” said Shuler, who caught 25 of those touchdowns from Cato.

“I know we had a loss, but our team needed this. This is a group of guys I’m real proud of.”

Marshall (13-1) would have been playing in a bigger bowl this season had it survived Western Kentucky’s upset bid on Nov.28.

The Thundering Herd was undefeated and ranked 24th in the College Football Playoff rankings before losing 67-66 in overtime and would have been the highest rated team among the “Group of 5” and thereby earning a bid to one of the power bowls played on New Year’s.

Instead, Marshall lost and Boise State took Marshall’s spot in the Fiesta Bowl.

On Tuesday, the Herd looked to prove it was truly the top team among the non-power conferences.

“Our team needed this win,” Shuler said."We work so hard on offense all season … this was amazing.”

Northern Illinois, which last played in South Florida at the 2013 Orange Bowl against Florida State, opened the scoring with a 19-yard pass from Drew Hare to Juwan Brescacin with 7:33 left in the first.

Marshall then scored 17 unanswered points. The Herd matched the Huskies' initial touchdown as Deandre Reaves returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards.

The Herd led by 11 at the half as it was able to score touchdowns (Cato ran one in from the 5, Devon Johnson scored from the 2) and NIU tried to keep up with Christian Hagan field goals.

Northern Illinois (11-3) had the ball inside the Marshall 20 four times in the first half and came away with just one touchdown.

The Huskies also recovered their onside kick to open the second half yet turned the ball over on downs.

In the second half, it was more of the same as the Marshall defense dominated and its offense piled on the points.

After Cato and Shuler paired up for a third-quarter score, Cato threw touchdown passes to Angelo Jean-Louis (11 yards) and Deon-Tay McManus (27). The pass to McManus set the school record for most touchdown passes in a single season eclipsing the 39 Cato tossed last year.

“This has been a blessing being able to see us grow up as a team,” Cato said. “We did what we wanted to do, won a championship, won 13 games. The sky is the limit for this group.”

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