PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Despite having only two losses and a shot at the American Athletic Conference title, Cincinnati is heading into the final three weeks of the season with much to prove.
The Bearcats (7-2, 4-1) have feasted on the league’s struggling schools in becoming bowl eligible. They stretched their winning streak to four games last weekend with a 28-25 win over SMU.
The competition picks up dramatically down the stretch with game at Rutgers and Houston (7-2, 4-1) and a finale at home against No. 19 Louisviille (8-1, 4-1).
The run starts Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium when Cincinnati travels to New Jersey to face Rutgers (5-3, 2-2). The Scarlet Knights are the weakest of the three remaining opponents, but they have a two-game winning streak against the Bearcats and they also will be looking for a win to secure their own spot in a postseason bowl for the eighth time in nine years.
“We got a good start last week, and we have two more this month, then one more in December, and we will finish it off, but we are still in the race for the championship with only one loss,” Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. “We can’t control our own destination, but in terms of bowl games and how we will finish in the rankings at the end of the year, the only thing we can do is go out and play the best we can, and win as many as we can.”
The AAC team that Cincinnati won’t face this season is No. 15 Central Florida (7-1, 4-0), the conference leader.
Rutgers, which had a bye last week, have a short week after Cincinnati, facing Central Florida on Thursday in Orlando.
Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood is more concerned about the Bearcats than the possibility of becoming bowl eligible.
Cincinnati is ranked 32nd nationally in total offense (463.1 yards) and they own the nation’s No. 8 total defense (299.0), No. 6 in rushing defense (96.2 yards) and 14th in scoring defense (18.8 points.
Bearcats quarterback Brendan Kay leads the nation in completion percentage (74.1) and ranks 11th nationally in pass efficiency.
“They’ve got an excellent football team,” Flood said. “I think you’ve seen that in the statistics and the games that they’ve won, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Rutgers has held Cincinnati to six points in winning the last two games. The difference this year is that most of the starters from those teams are gone.
Five things to know about Saturday’s game: RUNNING BACK: This could be the week that Scarlet Knights sophomore running back Paul James returns. He suffered a lower leg injury in the win over Arkansas and has missed the last four games. He leads the team in yards rushing (573), rushing touchdowns (6) and yards per carry (7.3). Despite the lost time, he ranks fourth in the conference in rushing.
THREE-HEADED MONSTER: Cincinnati leads the conference in rushing, averaging 179.1 yards. The attack is three-pronged with Tion Green, Hosey Williams and Ralph David Abernathy IV leading the way. Williams has run for 452 yards and four TDs. Abernathy has 396 yards and three touchdown, while Green has 325 yards and seven TDs.
HOW GOOD?: There are questions about the Bearcats because of the teams they played. They have beaten Purdue (1-8), Northwestern State (5-5), Miami, Ohio (0-10), Temple (1-8), Connecticut (0-8), Memphis (2-6) and SMU (3-5). They lost to Illinois (3-6) and South Florida (2-6). That’s a combined 17-62 record for the opponents.
RUTGERS SECONDARY: The Scarlet Knights have struggled against the spread offense this season, and that’s what Cincinnati has run since the middle of the season. Kay has been a key. The sixth-year senior has completed 79.5 percent for 1,335 yards and 11 touchdowns in his last 17 quarters. Scarlet Knights CB Delon Stephenson, who made his first start against Temple, rolled an ankle and his status is uncertain. Safety Lorenzo Waters is making progress coming off an ankle injury. MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Rutgers redshirt freshman middle linebacker Steve Longa leads all freshmen nationally with 10.0 tackles per game in 2013. The New Jersey product has three games with 12-plus tackles this season. He has 80 tackles, the most of any freshmen nationally. He ranks 17th nationally in tackles per game and fourth in the conference.