CINCINNATI — With another shut-down performance by its defense, No. 22 Rutgers stayed in control of the Big East.
Reserve running back Savon Huggins had a career-high 179 yards, and the Scarlet Knights shut down the league's highest-scoring offense for a 10-3 victory over Cincinnati on Saturday that left Rutgers alone in first place.
Rutgers (9-1, 5-0) knocked the Bearcats out of the race and maintained its one-game lead over No. 20 Louisville, which was idle. The Scarlet Knights finish with games at Pittsburgh and home against Louisville.
"I'm not thinking about being in control of the Big East," coach Kyle Flood said. "This was a one-time event."
Not by Rutgers' reserve running back or its unmatched defense.
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.
The league's top defense took it from there, shutting out Cincinnati (7-3, 3-2) until Tony Miliano kicked a 36-yard field goal with 11 seconds left. Rutgers recovered the onside kick.
It was the third time this season that Rutgers held an opponent to three or fewer points.
"I was very disappointed about losing the shutout," said linebacker Khaseem Greene, the conference's defensive player of the year in 2011. "I'm not going to lie to you. We played hard enough and worked hard enough to get the shutout."
Rutgers picked off Brendon 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'd already lost to Louisville and needed a win over Rutgers to stay in the race.
"That's a locker room that's hurting right now," coach Butch Jones said. "We can still finish with 10 wins, which is extremely hard to do in college football."
Rutgers is 5-0 in the Big East for the first time in his history, thanks largely to its defense.
"That has to be the best defensive effort since I've been at Rutgers," said Flood, in his first season as head coach after being an assistant for seven years.
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.
"The more you carry the ball, the more you get to see what the defensive line is going to do," Huggins said. "As the game went on, I was able to make my cuts with more conviction."
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.
"We take it real personal when they go for it on fourth down," Greene said.