Change of scenery

Critical fourth-down stop halts Cincinnati momentum, narrows gap between Rutgers, elusive first conference title

<p>Senior wide receiver Mark Harrison evades Cincinnati defensive back Deven Drane en route to a 71-yard touchdown Saturday, the only touchdown in the Knights’ 10-3 victory at Nippert Stadium.</p>

Senior wide receiver Mark Harrison evades Cincinnati defensive back Deven Drane en route to a 71-yard touchdown Saturday, the only touchdown in the Knights’ 10-3 victory at Nippert Stadium.

CINCINNATI — Recent trends at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium told the Rutgers football team its seven-point lead Saturday in the fourth quarter was not safe.

Previous results against the Bearcats left little doubt to the weight on the Scarlet Knights, who faced the prospect of inching closer to the program’s first Big East title. The Knights seldom showed concern, outlasting Cincinnati, 10-3, and remaining unbeaten this season on the road.

“Not that I thought history would repeat itself, because history is 69 points [allowed at Cincinnati in 2010],” said senior defensive tackle Scott Vallone. “I didn’t think that was going to happen.”

The Knights (9-1, 5-0) did not allow it.

Cincinnati entered the contest with Big East-best averages in points and rushing yards per game. It left without a touchdown — its lowest total of the season — and only 90 yards on the ground. The Knights stopped Cincinnati (7-3, 3-2) on fourth-and-inches in the red zone, intercepted a pair of passes and held George Winn, the Big East’s leading rusher, to only 35 yards.

“I’ve been at Rutgers for eight years,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “I’ve seen a lot of really good defensive efforts over the last eight years. This is as good as any of them.”

It erased memories of a drubbing at Nippert two years ago, when the Knights were a blocked extra-point attempt from allowing 70 points. Cincinnati scored more than three times as many touchdowns as it punted that day.

Flood said earlier in the week the performance Nov. 20, 2010, did not affect Rutgers’ outlook on defense. But following a season in which the Knights allowed more than 35 points per game in Big East play, then-head coach Greg Schiano made near-wholesale changes to the unit.

Part of the vision involved injecting speed into each layer of the defense.

Senior linebacker Khaseem Greene played a large role in implementing it.

The former safety recorded 11 tackles Saturday and added two sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss.

None were bigger than a fourth-quarter sack of Bearcat quarterback Brendon Kay, who threw an incompletion on fourth-and-25 on the next play.

But contributions against Cincinnati came from across the board.

“It really speaks to the entire team defense,” Flood said. “I don’t know if you could do that without all 11 guys.”

Senior linebacker Steve Beauharnais picked off his first pass of the season. Junior cornerback Logan Ryan intercepted another at Rutgers’ 3-yard line. A sack from senior defensive end Marvin Booker pushed Cincinnati out of field goal range.

But Beauharnais provided arguably the game’s biggest play.

The Bearcats faced a fourth-and-short at the Knights’ 7-yard line in the third quarter, threatening to add a chapter to Rutgers’ long list of shortcomings in Ohio. Then Beauharnais collided with Winn behind the line of scrimmage, and Greene arrived to clean the play up.

It was one of many signs of a new twist of fate in Cincinnati.

“The last time I was here, they definitely opened up a can of you-know-what,” Beauharnais said. “They have to play us this year for four quarters. As far as history, history is history. It’s behind you. You have to move on.”

Rutgers’ history with Big East title contention, meanwhile, could be harder to elude.

It only needs a win in its season finale Nov. 29 against Louisville to cement its first Big East crown. Other scenarios exist, as well.

But history has rarely served the Knights well when they dealt in scenario.

“Rutgers has gotten close [to a Big East title] in ’06. Rutgers got close last year. Rutgers probably got close in ’05. Rutgers has gotten close,” Beauharnais said. “It’s time to finish. This is the time to finish. We need to finish.”

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow Tyler Barto on Twitter @TBartoTargum.

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