A season of almost wins and moral victories bore fruition on Saturday night when Cincinnati toppled the top team in the conference and a program in the middle of the BCS debate.
The signature victory this team has been seeking, the moment that brought Mark Dantonio from a national power to a team that was struggling to find its identity, has finally come.
"Tonight was our night," said Dantonio. "This is the fifth Top 10 team we've played. We played well against every one of them with the exception of West Virginia. We finally got one at home."
Now bowl eligible, the Bearcats chopped and hammered away at #7 Rutgers in relentless fashion, upping their record to 6-5 on the season and 3-3 in the BIG EAST.
It was a rocky start for a game that would have such a memorable flavor for the Bearcats. Playing their fifth Top Ten team of the season and their first game against a ranked opponent at home this season, it was two players making their first start who stepped up and excelled. Senior quarterback Nick Davila, who had seen spot-duty throughout the season, shook off some early jitters to flawlessly orchestrate a Cincinnati offense that was deadly efficient. Davila, who finished the game 11-for-15 for 277 yards and a touchdown both in the air and on the ground, was the model of intelligent quarterbacking. Davila, who found out midweek that he would replace usually starter Dustin Grutza, was the spark for the Cincinnati offense.
Davila, who has bode his time as a backup to the underclassman Grutza, was humble in his assessment after the game.
"I can't really explain how it feels. It's so unbelievable," remarked the senior signal caller. "It's great for our program. It's the greatest feeling in the world. Our defense played great. It was an all-around great effort of all the Bearcats--the fans, coaches, players, everyone."
As stellar as Davila was in his accuracy and mobility, it truly was a total-team effort for a Cincinnati team that physically dominated a Rutgers team that was enjoying its best start to a season since 1976.
Following a turnover deep in their own half, the Cincinnati defense held to force Rutgers into a field-goal attempt. Jeremy Ito, he of the infamous Louisville winning kick, sent the ball just wide of the goal post, a microcosm of the night for the Knights. The Knights moved the ball throughout the night and enjoyed some strong field position, but lacked the instinct to punch the ball in and killed their efforts with turnovers.
"Early in the game, we had our opportunities, that's for sure," reflected Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano. "We were inside the 25 four times and we came away with three points. It's awfully hard to win on the road in the BIG EAST Conference when you do that."
" Beating Rutgers in front of a national audience will do wonders for UC. Great job Bearcats!! I loved the interceptions.."
-- caseybrady on the The Lair message board on
Cincinnati responded with a dominating 11-play, 65 yard drive that set up a 32 yard clinical effort by Kevin Lovell. Cincinnati grabbed the lead over a ranked opponent, a common theme throughout this season in their four losses to ranked teams. This time, there was no looking back.
In fact, Cincinnati rattled off 17 points total before Rutgers appeared on the scoreboard-this time with Ito converting a field goal to cut the lead to a 17-3 deficit. The highlight of the first-half scoring came on a third and short, when Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel was chased out of the pocket and threw an errant pass into to D'Angelo Smith's leaping grasp. Smith, making his first collegiate start, dashed 84 yards for a touchdown. The red-shirt sophomore out of Columbus, Ohio spearheaded the secondary with six tackles on the evening.
The second-half saw Cincinnati build upon the strong play of the first two quarters. Lovell once again opened the scoring of a half with a 19 yard field goal to put the score at 20-3. The drive was geared by Davila, who took the team 86 yards in 9 plays that churned out 5:27 in time of possession. It was a theme for the Bearcats all game and a tribute to their efficiency with the ball and the stellar play of their defense; Cincinnati held the ball for shy of 33 minutes during the game.
Then, came the play that put the game away, and it fittingly came via the hands and feet of Cincinnati's most steady player all season long. Standout senior tight-end Brent Celek took a pass from Nick Davila and tip-toed along the sidelines before spinning his way free of a would-be tackler to rumble in for an 83-yard touchdown.
"I caught a ball and just started running," said Celek. "The guys got out there and blocked for me and that's all I can say." Celek, a team captain, capped off his last home game on 'Senior Night' in memorable fashion.
For Celek, who has seen the highs and lows at Cincinnati, it was a moment to savor, "It's a moment I'll never forget. Beating the 7th team in the nation- it's just huge."
Yet, the big story of the night was the prowess of a Bearcats' defense that limited Rutgers' Ray Rice, the nation's third leading rusher, to unusually low numbers. Stymied and hit hard, Rice suffered through the worst rushing game of the season and was held under 100 yards rushing for only the third time this year. Rice, who finished with 56 yards on 18 carries, was bruised and battered by a Bearcats rush defense that limited Rutgers to a season-low 60-yards on the ground.
For Rutgers, the perfect season is now over and it happened in a fashion that was far from typical for a Scarlet Knights team that he earned a reputation for being tough and physical. Rutgers turned over the ball four times and amassed only 288 yards in total offense, another season low.
"Did we make some mistakes? Yeah. But I don't think we made a ton of mistakes -- more than in games that we won," remarked Schiano. "What we didn't do was capitalize on opportunities. I've been around long enough to know that you learn from this. As a program you learn. The program has to understand how hard it is to be at your best and we weren't at our best tonight." Rutgers drops to 9-1 on the season and fell out of the Top 10 in both polls and the BCS standings.
Cincinnati will hit the road seeking its seventh win of the season in Storrs, Connecticut. Rutgers, in order to maintain a shot at the BIG EAST title, faces a must-win game versus Syracuse at home, before traveling to West Virginia for its final game of the season.