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BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) — Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato took a knee when he learned the Thundering Herd were bound for the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl.
And then he said a prayer of thanks.
"It's a huge blessing, and not only for me," Cato said on the eve of Tuesday night's game against Northern Illinois. "We have 30-plus guys on our team from Florida."
Ten Northern Illinois players hail from the Sunshine State. For the Floridians, the game means a chance to finish the season in front of lots of family and friends.
Cato, for example, said the crowd will include more than 20 of his relatives and dozens of friends from his native Miami.
"It'll be a lot — sisters, brothers, coaches, pastors, my daughter, my grandfather, my cousins," he said. "Everybody."
Cato threw for 3,622 yards and 37 touchdowns to lead Marshall (12-1) to its first Conference USA title. Northern Illinois (11-2) won the Mid-American Conference for the third time in four years, and reached the 11-win mark for the fifth season in a row.
Here are things to know regarding the matchup of league champions:
HOMECOMING: Cato will play his final college game less than an hour up Interstate 95 from his hometown. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of his past 45 games, a Football Bowl Subdivision record.
"He can run it, he can throw it, he can run the offense and he makes the players around him better," Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said. "Those are pretty much all the qualities you look for in a great quarterback. I don't know that you can stop him. I think you can try to do some things to slow him down and confuse him, but then again he's a senior and has seen it all."
Cato broke numerous school records set by Marshall predecessors Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.
"Now he has won a championship, and he can be talked about in the same breath as the other two," coach Doc Holliday said. "I'm glad he's our quarterback."
RECRUITING TOOL: Both programs want to keep their Florida pipeline going, and the bowl game will help with recruiting, despite restrictions on contact with prospects at this time of year, Carey said.
"People can come see the game, but you can't talk to them," the Huskies coach said. "It has been weird. But it's good. I think we have a great name down here, and it's important just to keep our name out there."
The Huskies played in the Orange Bowl two years, losing to Florida State.
FINISH LINE: For the first time, Northern Illinois senior tackle Tyler Loos will take the field in the year's final game.
Loos' first three seasons were curtailed by serious leg injuries. Last year, after he broke his left leg and dislocated his ankle, he wasn't sure whether he would play again.
"I've had a rough time," Loos said. "I thought about calling it quits, but I decided to come back, and I'm really glad I did. I got to play in my first MAC championship, and now my first bowl game."
Carey said he's proud of Loos and happy for him.
"I can't talk about it a whole lot. I get a little too emotional," the coach said. "But he's a big reason we're playing as well as we are."
IN THE TRENCHES: Loos and rest of Northern Illinois' offensive line has 166 career starts, while Marshall's defensive line has totaled 154 games. Both groups are talented.
"That's where the game is going to be won," Carey said.
Marshall totaled 35 sacks to rank 28th in the country. Northern Illinois allowed only 13.
SCHNELLENBERGER'S VISION: The game will be played in Florida Atlantic's stadium, which delights Howard Schnellenberger. He was hired in 1998 to start the FAU program and oversaw the fundraising campaign to build the stadium.
"What I was talking about at the very beginning, about football in paradise with a stadium on campus, all those things have come together so wonderfully," Schnellenberger said. "And to have a bowl game of this quality, people can say, 'Oh my gosh, coach knew what he was talking about.'"
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