CINCINNATI (AP)—Nick Davila fought back tears while hugging his family and friends in the middle of a rare, raucous Cincinnati celebration.
He had good reason to get choked up.
The senior quarterback who had never started a game led the Bearcats to their biggest upset in school history Saturday night, a 30-11 victory over No. 7 Rutgers that ended the Scarlet Knights’ perfect season and national title aspirations.
“I’m just caught up in the moment right now,” said Davila, who scored on a 1-yard run and threw an 83-yard touchdown pass. “I can’t explain what’s going on. It’s so unbelievable. This is the greatest scene in the world.”
Only nine days earlier, Rutgers (9-1, 4-1 Big East) was engulfed in a similar scene. Red-clad fans poured onto the field in New Jersey after a 28-25 win over then-No. 3 Louisville put the Scarlet Knights smack in the middle of the national championship debate.
Davila and the Bearcats (6-5, 3-3) watched that celebration on television, and dreamed of their own.
“I thought: That’s going to be us,” Davila said.
Rutgers players now know what it feels like to have to run away from one of those celebrations.
“It seems like it’s happened to every team in the Big East,” Rutgers fullback Brian Leonard said. “It happened to West Virginia, it happened to Louisville, and now it’s happened to us. We know we won’t make the national championship, but we can still win the Big East.”
A big-play offense had its way against one of college football’s best defenses and one of its most improbable success stories. Rutgers came into the day as one of only four unbeaten teams left in Division 1-A.
Playing as a Top 10 team for the first time in their 137-year history, the Scarlet Knights gave by far their worst performance of the season.
“It’s so hard to be at your best each week, and we weren’t at our best tonight,” coach Greg Schiano said.
Now, only No. 1 Ohio State and No. 13 Boise State have perfect marks.
In their second season in the Big East, the Bearcats have been looking for a signature win. They’d already played four Top 10 teams on the road this season, losing to all four.
This time, they got it right.
Rutgers’ Ray Rice—the nation’s third-leading rusher—couldn’t find any holes in a defense stacked to stop him. Sophomore quarterback Mike Teel couldn’t carry the offense with his erratic passing, and made the big mistake that got Cincinnati believing.
Cornerback DeAngelo Smith returned Teel’s floating sideline pass 74 yards for a second-quarter touchdown that put the Bearcats in position for the big upset. They’d never beaten a team ranked better than No. 9.
“This is a program game,” said coach Mark Dantonio, who got doused by players in the closing seconds. “This is the atmosphere we’ve been talking about.”
Teel was 12-of-26 for 86 yards with four interceptions in the first three quarters, including a pass that was picked off in the end zone during the closing seconds of the first half.
Davila’s short pass to Brent Celek turned into the clincher. The beefy tight end slipped through two defenders and spun away from another on an 83-yard touchdown in the third quarter, putting the Bearcats up 27-3 with their longest play of the season.
All the Scarlet Knights could do was watch in horror. The 30 points were the most given up by Rutgers this season—the defense was allowing an average of only 10.9 per game.
It was quite a contrast from nine days earlier, when Rutgers overcame an 18-point deficit to upset Louisville. This time, nothing went right against a team missing its starting quarterback.
The left-handed Davila made an unannounced start in place of Dustin Grutza, who had a sore leg, hip and passing shoulder from all of the hits he took during a 42-24 loss at West Virginia a week earlier.
Schiano said the quarterback shouldn’t have made a difference.
“I had reports that both were going to play,” he said. “Quite frankly, there’s not a whole lot you do differently, other than one is left-handed and the other is right-handed.”
Davila fumbled his first snap of the game, giving Rutgers a chance to take the early lead, but Teel overthrew a receiver who got open beyond the coverage. Then, Jeremy Ito—the kicker whose field goal clinched that win over Louisville — was wide left from 31 yards.
That was the first hint of trouble ahead.
A defense that leads Division I-A in sacks barely got a hand on Davila, who completed 11-of-15 for 277 yards without an interception. The senior also scored his first career touchdown on a 1-yard run scramble for a stunning 10-0 lead.
Teel’s poor pass then set the upset in motion. Smith easily intercepted his sideline throw and ran untouched past the Rutgers bench on the fourth-longest interception return in Cincinnati history.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the crowd of 27,804—Cincinnati’s biggest of the season—started the “Overrated!” chant. Players doused coach Mark Dantonio during a timeout with 41 seconds left, leaving cubes of ice on the field for the final seconds.