Last season, sophomore Cato finished as the nation’s best in passing yards per game, and was named Conference USA’s MVP. This season – it’s early – but he’s only 43rd on that same national ranking.
The junior from Miami is OK with that. So is Herd coach Doc Holliday.
“We’d like to be able to continue to run a balanced offense,” Holliday said during his weekly news conference on Tuesday. “It all depends on what they give us defensively. I've said since Day 1 that we may not be better on the stat sheet, but we have a better offense.
“That's kind of where we are at this point, and we'd like to continue that trend."
Two years ago at Ohio, too many among the Herd were too callow in Holliday’s second season to cope with a good foe in a big rivalry in what was then-true freshman Cato’s third collegiate game – and he threw four interceptions.
Last season, the Bobcats erased an early 14-point early Marshall at home. One reason was the Herd couldn’t run it, so Cato kept chucking it. With a veteran offensive line, that scenario doesn’t seem likely to occur again.
In routs of Miami (Ohio) and Gardner-Webb, coordinator Bill Legg’s offense has displayed a versatility in multiples. Not only has the Herd run the ball more than passed the pigskin, but Marshall has shown it can slow down what was the nation’s fastest offense (90.6 players per game) last season.
“It worked well,” Cato said when asked about the “patience” in going from 94 snaps against Miami to 20 fewer against Gardner-Webb. “Any time a defense tries to throw a blitz at us or drop eight and confuse the offense, as offensive coordinator, as a quarterback, as coaches, as a team, you have to make an adjustment.
“We can do that now. We have the kind of experience that helps us. You don’t just keep trying to go fast and run plays. You need to adjust to run a successful play.”
The Herd’s run game was hardly lacking last season. It was just overshadowed by a potent passing game that lit up scoreboards and stat sheets. Marshall averaged 169.2 ground yards last season, the program’s best rush number since 2003, when backs Earl Charles (1,039 yards) and Butchie Wallace (729) led MU to a 196.3-yard average.
That’s Marshall’s best average in the run since it returned to major college football in 1997. The last time the Herd averaged more than 200 ground yards per game was 1996, when Coach Bob Pruett’s unbeaten Division I-AA national champions posted a 226.3 average. Leading the charge were Erik Thomas (1,296 yards) and Doug Chapman (1,238).
The Herd’s rushing attack this season – led by Steward Butler’s back-to-back 100-yard-plus games – now gets fellow sophomore Kevin Grooms (the 2012 C-USA Freshman of the Year) back to full strength after he played sparingly in Week 1 and then was held out in Week 2 as he recovered from a high ankle sprain.
“The thing I like about our offense now and what makes us better is … It’s just that ‘it’ about everybody out there,” Cato said. “All 11 guys who are on the field, whether the ones in or the twos are in, everybody out there at the time has the same mentality.
“We’ve got to move the ball, we’ve got to score, we’ve got to win. It’s a will. We’ve got to put the team in the best situation to win the ball game and just not let anything get to us.”
Last season, the Herd managed only 59 yards on 22 carries against the Bobcats, while Cato threw it 65 times, completing 44. Three MU running backs combined for just 27 yards. Cato was the leading Marshall rusher, with 32 yards on six tries.
The QB from Miami said he won’t forget those losses, but he doesn’t dwell on them. Nor should his teammates, he said, when asked what the Herd needs to do against Coach Frank Solich’s veteran team. The Bobcats have averaged nearly 34 minutes of possession time in its two wins in a row in the Ohio River rivalry.
“Just finish, finish the play, just finish the game against them,” Cato said. “Don’t be complacent. Be strong and finish the game strong, 60 minutes. Play every play your best play, go out and have fun. Don’t worry about what happened before (the last two losses to the Bobcats). You can’t go back. This is now and we’re a different team.”
In last Saturday’s win over Gardner-Webb, the Herd led 34-0 at halftime and Cato threw a TD pass to classmate Tommy Shuler on the first MU series of the second half. On first down of the next series, he was intercepted. He then led the Herd on a nine-play, 68-yard scoring drive capped by Butler’s 13-yard run before backup QB Blake Frohnapfel took over.
“I didn’t know when I was going out,” Cato said of his performance against the Runnin’ Bulldogs. “I knew it was coming soon though. I was on the phone with Coach Legg (in the coaches’ booth upstairs), and then I threw that interception.
“I thought that (pick) might be my last drive, but Coach gave me another chance to redeem myself and not let me go out on the interception. I appreciated that.”
Holliday knows that going on the road the next two weeks against quality opponents like Ohio and Virginia Tech won’t be like winning two one-sided decisions at home.
“To be honest,” the Herd coach said, “I'm anxious to go get on the bus and go play somewhere else to see how far this team has come and how they've developed."
Cato agrees, and knows his game management is a big part of that development.
“What I’m doing is just staying focused, locking in on every play, all of the snaps we run,” the Marshall quarterback said. “Be consistent. My job on every play I’m out there is to be sure and put the offense and team into the best situation to run this play.
“Make sure that play is the best we can have against the defense the opponent is running. That’s what I’m trying to do. Take it play by play.”