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Cato continuing to grow

HUNTINGTON - Like any good pass-catcher in a "red zone" play, Eric Frohnapfel looked for an opening, prepared to catch a football suddenly coming his way.

The Marshall tight end was prepared, yes, but he wasn't expectant. He was heading to the left side of the back of the end zone; quarterback Rakeem Cato was flushed out and heading down the right side.

And then came the football. It was a pass properly destined for a 6-foot-6 target who had to jump to get it. Nobody wearing a blue West Virginia jersey was going to reach it.

"It was a 'go' play and it was 'trips' [formation], so I had to get to the other side of the field," Frohnapfel said. "When I started running the route I was thinking, 'Ah, you know, this ball's not coming to me.' And then Cato started rolling out and I turned around and realized I was wide open, nobody was around me. I was thinking, 'I hope he looks this way.'

"He had kind rolled to [the other] side of the field and I thought, 'He's not going to look all the way back this way.' And I really think it was a great read for him to look back that far, read the other side of the field and see me open back there, and then it was a good toss. Close my eyes and hope I catch it when it's that easy."

When Frohnapfel came down with the ball, it didn't matter that the game was a lopsided rout entering its final minute. Something else mattered for the Thundering Herd and its long-sputtering offense.

Cato showed he is growing up.

Numbers-wise, it was Cato's 38th completion in his 54th and final attempt. He had hit the 400-yard mark before the play, and the 11-yard completion gave him 413.

Again, something more important came out of the play, something that Herd fans can expect in the coming weeks, including Saturday's contest against Western Carolina. Kickoff is at 7 p.m., with Fox College Sports Atlantic (Suddenlink digital 509) televising.

"I think last year, being a freshman, he's doing the basics," Frohnapfel said. "And as an offense, we were much more basic last year. And he's shown so much progression this year - not just when he's back there reading the play, but when the play breaks down. He's shown a lot of poise keeping the play alive.

"Multiple times on Saturday, he made some plays downfield when he could easily have taken a sack, run out of bounds for a 1-yard gain, something like that."

But Cato still isn't perfect in avoiding disastrous situations. Of the 101 scrimmage plays the Herd ran Saturday, two resulted in WVU touchdowns, one on a fumble return that went all the way and an interception return that led to a 3-yard drive.

Cato placed the blame for the fumble, an easy strip by Terence Garvin, on himself. It was his only sack, which otherwise would be viewed as a success.

"Offense did pretty good as a whole; we've got a lot of room for improvement," Cato said. "We still had two turnovers that cost 14 points, so we've got a lot of improvement. We reached our goal of 31 points a game, average 22 first downs - we had 28. We went 6-for-6 in the red zone [four touchdowns].

"We did pretty good as a whole, but we still got a loss, so we didn't do that good. As they say, the [other] team scores 69 points, you've got to score 70 points."

In that hyper-tempo offense, the Herd just might do it. Western Carolina, an FCS team down on its luck, could be a victim, but Cato and all those skill players seem to be equipped to ring up big numbers against somebody else.

Especially if Cato continues to run the offense with a cool hand. He usually looks as calm as he did last year, when the Herd offense was slower in tempo and he was restricted at the line of scrimmage.

Since the end of last season, the reins on Cato have been loosened.

"People get mad, 'Why'd they call that?'" said offensive coordinator Bill Legg. "Sometimes, you don't really know what the whole play was ... We call a lot of run-pass options - about half of Cato's throws Saturday were not [strictly] drop-back pass. They were, 'Do I give it to the running back, or do I keep it [and] throw it to that guy over there because their defense did this.'" And that's gotten better.

"And that's allowed us to run the ball when we should be running the ball and throw the ball when we should be throwing the ball, without always saying, 'OK, we're going to run it here,' or 'We're going to pass it here.' Obviously, there are times when you're going to say we're definitely going to throw it or definitely going to run it.

"We're giving him the keys to the car, and he's doing a good job. And if he continues to improve, we have a chance to be awfully good."  

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.


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