Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports
With only about a week until the Military Bowl, where the Maryland Terrapins will face off against the 9-3 Marshall Thundering Herd, it’s worth taking a gander at the man who makes their entire offense run. That man is Rakeem Cato, the junior quarterback who was recently declared the best player in Conference USA after his 36 touchdown, 9 interception season. To get to know the player, though, you’ve got to delve into his history, which is strangely enough very linked with someone most college football fans are very familiar with.
Rakeem Cato came to recognition playing high school football for Miami Springs (his first three seasons) and the Central Rockets (his senior year) in one of the toughest areas in the nation, Miami, Florida. That’s Region 4, 6A football, and it’s arguably the highest caliber of competition you can play against in the United States. Most kids on those teams get Division I scholarships, and even the backups tend to garner interest from major programs. Within a 5-mile radius of one another are three schools: Central, Northwestern, and Miami Springs; Jacory Harris played at Northwestern, and Jeff Godfrey (UCF) played at Central before Cato. Northwestern is important to Cato for one reason and one reason only: that’s where Teddy Bridgewater went to high school.
Yes, the Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville University. The same quarterback who started the season as a Heisman finalist and finished it by throwing 28 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions. The guy who was a 5-star blue chip recruit coming out of Northwestern ranked as one of the best players in Florida his senior year. But missing from all those accolades is a state championship in Florida, and while you have likely heard of Bridgewater by now regardless, you probably haven’t heard about the rival who denied him that championship run, Rakeem Cato.
Cato and Bridgewater have played one another for years, at every single level of play. Back in 2009, when Cato was a senior in high school, his Central Rockets played against Bridgewater’s Northwestern team twice; once in the regular season and again in the Region 4, 6A playoffs for a bid to state. Two of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the area went head-to-head, and both times Cato came out on top to end Northwestern’s season and a shot at a championship game. Going up against Bridgewater, Cato looked every bit the quarterback as the blue chip recruit who threw for a collective 697 yards and 7 touchdowns in those two matchups. Cato’s numbers over those two games? 493 yards, 6 touchdowns, 2 wins.
Even in college, Bridgewater’s first career start came against none other than his old rival, Rakeem Cato, when Marshall faced off against Louisville. Both rosters were littered with players from those three high schools previously mentioned; some players from Northwestern followed Cato to Marshall and some followed Bridgewater to Louisville. The matchup was like playing in high school all over again, too.
It was doubly so because yet again Cato beat Bridgewater, as Marshall went on to win 17-13. This time, Cato outplayed his opponent, finishing with 236 yards and going 18-of-30 for 2 touchdowns. Bridgewater, meanwhile, went 20-of-29 for 221 yards, 1 passing touchdown, 1 rushing touchdown, and 2 interceptions. But it was Cato who threw the game winning touchdown with 1:49 left in the fourth quarter, not Bridgewater.
But if these two are so intricately linked with one another, and Cato wins all the games, why is it that Bridgewater comes up with all the acclaim? To be frank, it’s one of those examples where one monstrously bright star outshines another equally impressive, bright star. Bridgewater has been a stud from day one and hasn’t given anyone looking at Miami quarterbacks a reason to question whether or not he was the best player in the area. Cato is a couple inches shorter, but in many respects is an incredibly similar quarterback.
The funny thing is that coming out of high school, Cato was considered the superior pocket passer with the ability to read defenses incredibly well, and Bridgewater the improviser with his legs who can truly extend plays. The reality now is slightly reversed, where Cato has to make plays with his legs and Bridgewater has time in the pocket to read and dissect a defense. That’s usually what happens when offensive line play is vastly inferior.
Take a look at their statistics from this article in 2012, where FootballStudyHall broke down a bunch of quarterback’s numbers and tried to figure out who was the best passer from specific distances. Statistically, the two are remarkably similar, with Bridgewater only getting a slight edge in most every category. Their overall adjusted completion percentage (when factoring in the most common passes) puts Bridgewater at 70.2% and Cato at 69.7%. Again, only a slight difference. Bridgewater seems to take more chances downfield, where Cato uses more short routes to exact damages on defenses. By and large though, these two are apples-to-apples players.
The biggest difference may be their respective levels of competitions. Conference USA doesn’t put up a particularly challenging slate of games every season, and while the Big East isn’t considered a gauntlet by any stretch, the perception (and reality) is that the caliber of football is still superior. And yet, there’s an overlap in the data that suggests these two are still a hare away from one another; they’ve played against similar opponents throughout their careers.
Cato and Bridgewater both went up against Ohio in 2013. While Bridgewater handily dispatched of Ohio 49-7 with 355 yards, 5 touchdowns to 1 interception and an 82.1% completion rate, Cato’s team lost the game 34-31 as he threw for 366 yards, 1 touchdown, ran for another, and threw 1 interception with a 66.7% completion rate.
The two QBs also faced off against Florida International in 2013 as well. This time, Cato’s team won 48-10 as he racked up four touchdowns and 241 yards. Similarly, Bridgewater’s Cardinals won 72-0 and he piled on four touchdowns of his own through the air. The big difference is that Bridgewater completed 77% of his passes, whereas Cato completed a shade under 50% of his.
And even going up against solid competition, Cato didn’t exactly fare poorly compared to his counterpart. One of the more exciting games of the season was when Cato faced off against Virginia Tech in a 29-21 triple-OT thriller during week four of the season. Cato went 19-of-41 against one of the tougher defenses in the nation, with 228 yards through the air and two touchdowns while adding on 46 rushing yards and a touchdown.
If you watched that game, you’d realize why Cato’s completion percentage was so down: it was almost impossible to run against Virginia Tech, so Cato had to try and air it out. Marshall running back Essray Taliaferro may have had a 100-yard game on the day, but he had nearly 80 of those yards at halftime and lost a lot of yardage in the fourth quarter. It was a lot of Cato late in the game, but to be fair his interception at the Virginia Tech 39 on with 3:04 left cut short his bid for a victory.
Even though Cato’s career at Marshall has not had anywhere near the success that Bridgewater’s has at Louisville, there is no denying that both these guys are gamers. They are both pocket passers who are jazz musicians with their legs; they improvise and improve a play, but don’t stray too far from their strengths. They have both put together monster careers and lead very potent offenses that require a very sturdy defensive effort to slow them down.
When Maryland takes on Marshall at the Military Bowl, think of Cato as Bridgewater-lite; his offense will put up the numbers, but his defense may not be there to support it. A case could be made that Cato is every bit the passer that Bridgewater is, with a smaller body of work and a vastly inferior team to play with. Bridgewater is undoubtedly the better professional prospect, but don’t be surprised to see Cato following right behind him, as always.