BOCA RATON, Fla. - It was a welcome homecoming for the 18 Marshall players who hail from South Florida in Tuesday night's inaugural Boca Raton Bowl.
The Conference USA champion notched its first ever 13-win season with a 52-23 victory against Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois at the 4-year-old FAU Stadium on the campus of Florida Atlantic University.
Marshall's players likely felt right at home in front of a crowd of 29,419 in the first bowl game played in Palm Beach County.
Of the 18 South Florida natives on Marshall's roster, nine are from Miami-Dade County, five are from Broward County and four are from Palm Beach County.
Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato, who set numerous Miami-Dade County passing records while playing for Miami Central High School, was named the game's most valuable player. The senior capped a record-setting career with three touchdown passes for 281 yards through the air and two rushing touchdowns.
Cato's third-quarter touchdown pass to former Miami Central teammate Tommy Shuler extended his streak of consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass to 46, tying the NCAA all-division record.
"It's been a blessing," Cato said of being able to continue his college career with Shuler.
Shuler's touchdown catch put the Thundering Herd (13-1) ahead 31-13, but Northern Illinois (11-3) kept chipping away at the score, narrowing Marshall's lead to 11. Cato's second touchdown pass was an 11-yard strike to Wellington native Angelo Jean-Louis.
Cato ends his college career with a 3-0 record in bowl games and leaves Marshall as the school's all-time passing leader.
It's no surprise so many Marshall players come from the Sunshine State. Marshall coach Doc Holliday spent three seasons as an assistant under Urban Meyer at Florida.
Holliday said the victory would help in recruiting.
"Anytime you can get your brand out there and win, then you've got a shot to help us," he said.
The Thundering Herd were one point from perfection. If not for a 67-66 overtime loss to Western Kentucky in the regular-season finale, Marshall would likely being playing in one of the major access bowls. But Cato isn't complaining about the consolation prize.
"It's very special" to win in South Florida, Cato said.
For the Huskies, it was their second South Florida bowl loss in three seasons and third bowl loss in a row. Northern Illinois lost to Florida State in the 2013 Orange Bowl and Utah State in last season's Poinsettia Bowl.
While Holiday is undefeated in bowl games, Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey is still searching for his first win.
"They bent but they didn't break," Carey said of Marshall after the game. "That's the sign of a good defense."
Follow Local 10 Sports on Twitter @Local10Sports
Copyright 2014 by Local10.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.