ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Once Marshall got the lead, Rakeem Cato was determined to finish off Florida International in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.
The freshman from Miami sparkled in his return to his home state Tuesday night, throwing for 226 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-10 victory that enabled the Thundering Herd to finish with a winning record.
When Marshall (7-6) snapped a 10-10 tie on Tyler Warner's second field goal, then regained possession on an FIU fumble, Cato asked coach Doc Holliday to let him remain aggressive and try to put the game away.
"I told Coach, 'I'm feeling like Tom Brady right now.' ... I just told him to put it on my back and we're going to bring it home," the young quarterback said. "That's what he did."
Cato threw TD passes of 31 and 35 yards to Aaron Dobson, the latter sealing it in the closing seconds. Warner's 39-yard field goal set up by a blocked punt put Marshall ahead with 5:16 remaining.
"At first he stumbled, so I just put it in the air," Cato said about Dobson, who made a nice recovery to make the catch and continue into the end zone. "He's known for making big-time plays and big-time catches."
Marshall overcame a slow start to win five of its last seven games and avoid a losing record in its second season under Holliday.
"It got ugly at times, but you know what, it was two good defenses," Holliday said. "FIU has an excellent defense. I think our guys are pretty good, too, so it just came down to who could make a play at the end. If you block a punt, you've got a great chance of winning. That's what we did."
FIIU (8-5) was denied a school-record ninth victory and there is speculation that coach Mario Cristobal might be a leading candidate to fill a job opening at Pittsburgh.
The coach has not commented on reports that he may have met with Pitt already. Athletic director Pete Garcia was interviewed by ESPN during the network's telecast of the game, which drew an announced crowd of 20,072 at Tropicana Field.
"I'd much rather have a coach that everybody wants than a coach that nobody wants," Garcia said.
Asked what it's going to take to keep Cristobal at FIU, Garcia said: "A lot of love," adding that he and the coach would talk after the game.
Cato, one of 28 players on Marshall's roster from the state of Florida, completed 27 of 39 passes and was intercepted once. Dobson had seven receptions for 81 yards, including a TD catch that wiped out a 10-3 FIU lead just before halftime.
All-purpose threat T.Y. Hilton scored on a 2-yard run for FIU, which also got a 46-yard field goal from Jack Griffin. Hilton had eight catches for 88 yards, ran for 22 yards on three carries and returned two kickoffs for 36 yards, but quarterback Wesley Carroll had difficulty getting the ball to him in open space in the second half.
Carroll was 19 of 29 passing for 150 yards.
"It hurts a lot. I was trying to go out with a bang," Hilton said. "Unfortunately it didn't happen tonight. ... I wish I could have done more."
Marshall struggled early against a tough schedule, losing in September to West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia Tech before regrouping late win four of six down the stretch to become bowl eligible and finish second behind Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA East Division standings.
FIU is a relative newcomer to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Panthers launched their program in 2002, joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2005 and have made steady progress in five seasons under Cristobal, who led the school to its first Sun Belt championship a year ago.
Hilton has been a big part of that success, setting FIU and Sun Belt records for career receiving and all-purpose yards. The senior from Miami caught a TD pass and scored on an 89-yard kickoff return to help the Panthers beat Toledo in last year's Little Caesars Bowl, and FIU showcased his versatility early against Marshall.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound receiver took a handoff on FIU's first play from scrimmage and ran for 20 yards before fumbling 5 yards backward. He had a 17-yard reception on the next play, then later in the opening quarter gained 14 yards on a catch-and-run to the Marshall 2.
Hilton scored his first rushing touchdown of the season on the next play, giving the Panthers a 7-3 lead.
Marshall answered Jack Griffin's 46-yard field goal that put FIU up 10-3 with a six-play, 55-yard drive that Cato finished with his 31-yard TD pass to Aaron Dobson to make it 10-10 with 23 seconds left in the first half.
Neither team was able to generate much offense in the third and fourth quarters. Zach Dunston blocked a punt to set up Warner's go-ahead field goal, and Cato began the clinching drive from his own 40 after FIU fumbled.
"Coach always talks about if we block a punt — 90 percent chance of us winning," Dunston said. "Four games this year we blocked punts. We've won every single one, so it's 100 percent. We blocked a punt. I knew from there it's ours."