AP Sports Writer
HUNTINGTON - Rakeem Cato is poised to finish his career as Marshall’s most prolific passer — a record book he’d likely wait to read.
Personal glory isn’t in the cards for Cato, who is back for his senior year that coincides with high expectations for the Thundering Herd. Getting Marshall its first Conference USA championship is everything to the 6-foot player who arrived on campus in 2011 at 150 pounds.
“I tell a lot of people, when I touch the field, I’m in competitive mode, no matter who I’m going against,” Cato said. “Because I was taught as a child growing up playing football, no matter who you’re playing against, you have to win. I can be playing against my grandmother, I’m going to go hard.”
Cato is on track to surpass numerous records set by former Heisman Trophy finalist Chad Pennington. Yet Pennington suggested to the player during a film study together last week to “fight the temptation to not have to make the big play every play and to find ways to win.”
Behind Pennington in 1999, Marshall went 13-0 and finished ranked 10th in the nation. The last time Marshall finished ranked in The Associated Press poll was at No. 24 in 2002.
This year, Marshall, which joined Conference USA in 2005, is the preseason favorite. There’s also an open spot in one of the new College Football Playoff’s six bowl games that will go to the highest-ranked team from the five mid-major conferences.
Cato has completed nearly 64 percent of his passes for 10,176 yards and 91 touchdowns. His 39 touchdown passes last year were third nationally to Fresno State’s Derek Carr (50) and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (40) of Florida State.
Marshall is coming off a 10-4 season that ended with a 31-20 win over Maryland in the Military Bowl.
Here’s 5 things to know about Marshall in its pursuit of a conference title and more:
OUT OF SPOTLIGHT: Marshall has no games against major-college opponents, meaning the Thundering Herd may have to rely on lots of lopsided wins if it hopes to move into the national polls. The nonconference schedule includes three games against Mid-American Conference teams Akron, Ohio and Miami, Ohio, and the Sept. 6 home opener against Rhode Island of the Championship Subdivision. Marshall’s schedule includes four teams that went to bowl games last season. Ohio, Middle Tennessee and Rice all lost by double digits, while Tulane was edged by Louisiana-Lafayette.
RUNNING BACK QUESTION: The lack of a running game hurt Marshall in a loss to Rice in last year’s Conference USA championship game. Now Marshall must find some new weapons after 1,000-yard rusher Essray Taliaferro graduated and backup Kevin Grooms was dismissed from the team following an arrest last month. Grooms ran for 503 yards during an injury-plagued season last year and led the team as a freshman in 2012 with 737 yards. Former tight end Devon Johnson has been moved into the backfield ahead of 2013 backups Steward Butler and Remi Watson. Holliday wants to utilize Johnson’s blocking skills and protect his prized quarterback.
FAST AND FURIOUS: Only Texas Tech, BYU and Arizona State ran more offensive plays than Marshall’s 1,093 last season. The Thundering Herd averaged 500 yards of offense per game. Cato will have two of his top four receivers back, including Tommy Shuler, who caught 106 passes for 1,165 yards.
RECORD BOOK: Cato could surpass Pennington in several career statistical categories. Cato is 24 touchdown passes shy of Pennington’s record of 115, needs 2,968 yards to set the career passing mark and 2,516 yards to set the total offense record. He’s also within reach of Pennington’s records for pass attempts and completions and Byron Leftwich’s career mark for completion percentage.
DON’T FORGET THE D: Marshall returns 11 of its top 12 tacklers from last season and the top three players in sacks. Among them are lineman James Rouse, the preseason conference defensive player of the year, and sophomore A.J. Leggett, who led the team with four interceptions.