PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Ben Mauk's passing and opportunistic defense. It's been an unbeatable combination for No. 20 Cincinnati.
Mauk threw two of his three touchdowns in a 19-second span late in the third quarter and Cincinnati forced four turnovers, including a game-saving interception by linebacker Ryan Manalac with 1:19 to play, as the Bearcats defeated No. 21 Rutgers 28-23 on Saturday night.
"I knew we were going to face adversity," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said after his team rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit. "It's just a matter of we've got to lead them through it. We've got some young guys who showed a little inexperience and made some mistakes, but we never, never broke apart."
Mauk threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Dominick Goodman in the first half and found Marcus Barnett on a 2-yard toss and Marshwan Gilyard on a 27-yard pass in the lightning quick third-quarter spree that helped Cincinnati (6-0, 1-0 Big East) send Rutgers (3-2, 0-1) to its second straight defeat.
"Quite honestly we had not been tested in the fourth quarter and we had to find what we are made of," Kelly said. "I think tonight we grew up more than anything else. That allows you to move to that next level."
The Scarlet Knights had a chance to pull the game out in the final minutes as they drove from their own 20 to the Cincinnati 17. On a second-and-3, Manalac stepped in front of a Mike Teel pass to Tim Brown and sealed the win with an interception.
"They had run the route three times before," Kelly said. "All we did was widen the linebacker a little more and he ducked underneath it."
Teel, who hurt his thumb in the first quarter according to coach Greg Schiano, was visibly upset after the game. He said the injury did not bother him.
"When you let 120 guys down, there is a lot of blame on your shoulders," said Teel, who threw three interceptions in this loss and seven in losing games to the Bearcats over the past two years.
Safety Haruki Nakamura and linebacker Andre Revels also had clutch interceptions for the Bearcats, who have now forced 25 turnovers in their best start since going 8-0 in 1954.
Devin McCourty returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown, Ray Rice scored on a 1-yard run and Jermey Ito kicked three field goals for Rutgers, which lost consecutive games for the first time since the end of the 2005 season.
"Losing is something that we are not going to accept," said Rice, who was limited to 94 yards on 34 carries.
The Bearcats embarrassed Rutgers 30-11 last year in knocking then No. 7 Rutgers from the unbeaten ranks. They've won nine in a row since that victory.
Mauk finished 20-of-37 for 257 yards. He also threw an interception and lost a fumble in the fourth quarter, but his defense saved him, forcing a Rutgers punt.
Teel was 22-of-38 for 334 and three picks. Brown had a career day, catching seven passes for 127, including catches of 23 and 15 yards on the last drive.
Rice, who struggled for a second consecutive game, now has 35 career rushing touchdowns, a school record.
Trailing 17-7 at the half, Cincinnati's defense came up with three big plays in the third quarter to go up 28-20.
Nakamura intercepted an ill-advised Teel pass at his own 23 on the opening drive of the half and returned it 31 yards to the Rutgers 46. Eight plays later, Bradley Glatthaar scored on a 3-yard run to cut the margin to 17-14.
Cincinnati's defense stepped up again later in the quarter, forcing Rutgers to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Ito after getting first-and-goal at the 7.
That put Mauk and the offense in position for its two quick strikes.
A 31-yard pass from Mauk to Gilyard set up the quarterback's 2-yard toss to Barnett. It capped an eight-play, 61-yard drive that put the Bearcats ahead 21-20 with 47 seconds left in the quarter.
Nineteen seconds later, Cincinnati had a 28-20 lead. Revels intercepted a tipped pass by Teel and returned it 3 yards to the Rutgers 27. Mauk found Gilyard on a sideline route on the next play for the score.
Ito added a 47-yard field goal with 9:58 to play to get Rutgers within 28-23, but that was as close as it would get.
McCourty had given Rutgers a 7-0 lead with his second career interception return TD, but Mauk tied the game with his TD throw to Goodman on the next series.
Ito's 27-yard field goal and Rice's 1-yard run gave Rutgers a 10-point halftime lead.