CINCINNATI — Quarterback Brendon Kay couldn't believe that the Big East's highest-scoring offense never got into the end zone.
Cross the goal line? The Bearcats couldn't even get a few inches when they needed them, a stunning way to end their chase of another Big East title.
Reserve running back Savon Huggins had a career-high 179 yards, and Rutgers' defense had another shut-down performance on Saturday for a 10-3 victory that kept the Scarlet Knights in control of the title race and knocked the Bearcats out.
The league's top defense shut out Cincinnati (7-3, 3-2) until Tony Miliano kicked a 36-yard field goal with 11 seconds left. Rutgers recovered the onside kick.
"As the quarterback, is it shocking?" Kay said. "Yeah."
It was the third time this season that Rutgers held an opponent to three or fewer points. Cincinnati came in with the league's most prolific offense, scoring at least 23 points in each game.
Coach Butch Jones didn't think anybody could keep his offense out of the end zone for an entire game.
"I think that's the disappointing thing," Jones said. "I don't think we played exceptionally well on offense. We take great pride in running the football here, and we were not able to run the football."
Or anything else.
No. 22 Rutgers (9-1, 5-0) picked off Kay twice and stopped George Winn on a fourth-and-inches play at the Scarlet Knights' 7-yard line in the third quarter. Rutgers came into the game fifth nationally in points allowed, giving up 13.4 per game.
It was essentially an elimination game for the Bearcats, who won or shared three of the last four league titles. They've already lost to Louisville and finish against South Florida and Connecticut.
"That's a locker room that's hurting right now," Jones said. "We can still finish with 10 wins, which is extremely hard to do in college football."
Rutgers remained the only unbeaten team in conference play. The Scarlet Knights finish with games at Pittsburgh and home against No. 20 Louisville, which has one Big East loss.
Huggins filled in for the injured Jawan Jamison and had a career day all around, leading an offense that did just enough. Gary Nova threw a 71-yard touchdown pass to Mark Harrison in the second quarter, and Nick Borgese made a 42-yard field goal in the fourth.
Rutgers repeatedly wasted chances to pad its lead, relying on the defense to hold on. Nova threw two first-half interceptions when the Scarlet Knights were in field goal range, and Rutgers also had a 22-yard field goal attempt blocked late in the third quarter. Nova finished 11 of 19 for 186 yards.
Rutgers' offense was missing its top runner. Jawan Jamison, who ranks second in the Big East with 105.9 yards per game, was limited by an ankle injury suffered a week earlier and carried only four times for 37 yards. His sophomore backup tied his school record with 41 carries.
"I didn't know anything about Huggins," Cincinnati cornerback Camerron Cheatham said.
Everyone does now.
Jones spent the week lobbying fans to fill the Big East's smallest stadium – 35,000 seats. Jones told a crowd a UC basketball game that the Bearcats would emerge as the ranked team on Saturday.
The 34,526 fans saw Rutgers' defense dominate.
"I apologize that we were not able to get it done for them today," Jones said. "But don't lose faith."
Kay, making his second start in place of the struggling Munchie Legaux, was 17 of 31 for 251 yards. He threw an interception at the 3-yard line in the first half that led to Rutgers' touchdown.
Five plays later, Nova threw a 71-yard touchdown pass to Harrison, who got between the cornerback and safety. He slipped out of Deven Drane's grasp after making the catch, completing Rutgers' longest play of the season.
The Scarlet Knights barely missed another touchdown off a trick play in the final minute of the half. Receiver Tim Wright took a lateral and overthrew a wide-open Huggins across the field, the ball slipping off his hands as he tried to make a diving catch. That threat ended when Nova forced a throw that was picked off in the end zone with 25 seconds left.
The Scarlet Knights' defense preserved the lead by stopping Winn – the league's leading rusher – on fourth-and-inches from the Rutgers 7-yard line early in the third quarter. Winn finished with only 35 yards on 11 carries.
"It's fourth and a half of a foot," Jones said. "You have to deserve to win. For us to win a game like that, we have to be able to get a first down at a critical stage."