2014 Boca Raton Bowl final score: Marshall blows past Northern Illinois, 52-23
The Thundering Herd put an exclamation mark on a truly impressive season.
In what was quite possibly the most-hyped Group of Five bowl game of the season, Northern Illinois failed to silence the doubters and keep things close against Marshall, leading to a snoozer in the Thundering Herd’s 52-23 win over the Huskies in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl.
The Herd (13-1) got off to a quick start on offense behind the spectacular offensive play of Rakeen Cato and Tommy Shuler, Marshall dominated — particularly in the second half — and NIU (11-3) couldn’t keep up. The Huskies had some bright spots, but they were routinely stopped short of the end zone when they got to the goal line. The Marshall defense played better than it often had toward the end of the season.
In the end, this game validated what we could have predicted all along: Marshall was a legit double-digit-win team, while Northern Illinois was a bit further behind. Here are the three biggest things we learned.
1. Marshall was the real deal this year
All year long, Marshall was doubted for its schedule, and in some cases, rightfully so. The Thundering Herd play in Conference USA, and they had an incredibly weak non-conference schedule, so they didn’t really get to prove that they were among the nation’s elite. Once they lost to Western Kentucky in a shootout, most assumed that they couldn’t match up with the best in the country.
However, behind Cato’s brilliance, this team has proven statistically that it could be a factor in just about any power conference. The Herd finished 15th in the final regular season F/+ ratings and were clearly one of the top three teams in the Group of Five conferences. It’s just too bad we never got a chance to see how they’d stack up with a top power conference team.
2. This isn’t the Northern Illinois team that went to Florida two years ago
Northern Illinois has become the class of the MAC, winning the conference title game three out of the last four years. In at least one of those years, the Huskies were a legitimate top 25 team. The NIU team quarterbacked by Jordan Lynch that made it to the Orange Bowl in 2012 was the best of the Group of Five teams, and last year’s team, which lost the MAC Championship Game, had Lynch and star safety Jimmie Ward.
This team simply wasn’t as good. The Huskies did beat two bad Big Ten teams in Northwestern and Purdue, and they rolled through the MAC, but they didn’t have the firepower to consistently hang with power conference teams like they did in the previous two years. They finished 72nd in the F/+ ratings, and that showed against Marshall.
3. Where does Rakeem Cato rank in Marshall history?
That’s perhaps the toughest question coming out of this game, and it will certainly be contested in Huntington for years to come. Marshall has a team that probably rivals its 1996-97 squads as the best in school history, and it’s possible that this quarterback is its best yet.
Those teams had the likes of Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich and Randy Moss, all of whom could state pretty impressive cases as the best players to ever come out of Huntington, but Cato has been equally impressive, and arguably against better overall competition.
It’s a tough debate, but Cato went even further in improving his candidacy Tuesday night.