Northern Illinois scored the game’s first touchdown, but it ended up spending most of the night playing catch up with a team that came within a two-point conversion of a perfect season.
With record-setting quarterback Rakeem Cato at the helm, the Marshall Thundering Herd scored 17 straight first half points to grab the lead and went on to post a 52-23 victory over Northern Illinois Tuesday in the Boca Raton bowl at Florida International Stadium. Marshall finished 13-1, with its only loss being a 67-66 overtime setback to Western Kentucky
Cato, who hails from nearby Miami, capped off his stellar career with another big night. In addition to running for two scores, he completed 25-of-37 for 281 yards and three touchdowns. One of those passing scores was turned in by wideout Tommy Shuler, who is also from the Miami area. The senior collected 18 passes for 185 yards and his score. He caught all of Cato’s seven first half passes, totaling 106 yards.
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Northern Illinois, meanwhile, accumulated 425 yards of offense, but the 23 points was nearly 10 under the Huskies season average.
NIU produced 200 yards of rushing on 50 attempts. Joel Bouagnon had 13 carries for 82 yards (6.3 ypc). Cameron Stingly got 18 carries for 76 yards and one touchdown.
Quarterback Drew Hare completed 15-of-27 passes for 225 yards and one touchdown.
“I told the seniors, great season, bad game,” said NIU head coach Rod Carey, who led the Huskies to an 11-3 overall record. “It was a terrible ending, but this game doesn’t overshadow the season or take away the MAC Championship. We’re obviously disappointed with the loss and give credit to Marshall. I don’t believe we played real well, but tonight you give credit to Marshall. They made the plays.”
Northern Illinois opened scoring on its second possession, driving 67 yards in seven plays. Hare found Juwan Crescarin on a 19-yard strike to finish the drive.
That lead disappeared in the time it took Deandre Reaves to cover 93 yards as he took the ensuing kickoff back for a score.
Northern Illinois moved 59 yards in 12 plays before trying a 32-yard field goal three plays into the second period. The try missed, and Marshall drove 69 yards the other way to make good on a 28-yard field goal by Justin Haig.
NIU climbed back within a score with a Christian Hagan 19-yard field goal midway through the period, but Marshall came back with a touchdown on Devon Johnson’s two-yard run.
Hagan’s 30-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining left the Huskies trailing, 24-13.
Cato hit Shuler on a six-yard strike to start a flurry of late third-quarter scoring at 6:39, opening up a 31-13 lead. But after the Huskies tallied with a 24-yard Stingily TD run on the next possession, Marshall put together an 11-play, 68-yard drive. Cato connected with Angelo Jean-Louis on an 11-yard pass for the TD.
Another Cato strike, this one to Deon-Tay McManus and covering 27 yards, gave the Herd a 45-20 cushion with 11:48 remaining in the contest.
Northern Illinois managed one more score – a 31-yard Hagan field goal midway through the period, but Cato wrapped scoring on a four-yard TD run with 4:10 remaining.
“They are a good football team,” Carey said of Marshall. “They made enough plays at key times and they executed. We didn’t on offense, defense or special teams. We ran the ball well at times, but not when we needed to.”
(Photos courtesy of NIU Athletics)