PISCATAWAY, N.J. - With all the attention that has been placed on the Big East, it's easy to forget sometimes that most of the conference's premier programs are still developing.
Whether it's a newcomer to big time college football, a longtime doormat growing into a powerhouse, or a team looking to become the second major college program in a state that's only had one, the teams of the Big East, by and large, are looking to take steps forward to build a program.
On Saturday night, it was Cincinnati that took those steps.
The Bearcats went on the road against a highly-regarded Rutgers team, shook off a 10-point halftime deficit, and then withstood the Scarlet Knights' final charge to hold on to a 28-23 win.
"We had not been tested in the fourth quarter," Bearcats head coach Brian Kelly said. "I think tonight, we grew up. We grew up in so many ways that allow you do move that next level, and that next level is being able to play on the road and win on the road against a ranked team."
Kelly's team certainly showed great maturity on Saturday night, and it started with the leader under center, Ben Mauk.
On Cincinnati's first offensive series, the Bearcats were flagged on a false start and a delay of game to set up a third-and-13 at the Bearcat 25-yard line. Moak calmly evaded the pressure on third down and found Marshwan Gilyard for a 23-yard completion. While that drive eventually petered out when the Bearcats failed to convert on fourth-and-1, it set a tone for the game for Cincinnati: the Bearcats could clean up their messes and not get rattled.
"I think with most types of offenses, a false start almost kills the drive," Mauk said. "With a spread offense like we run, it's just another five years. In our offense, a five-yard penalty doesn't bother us."
Mauk's confidence - not to be confused with cockiness - was just as present at halftime, when the Bearcats went to the locker room down 17-7.
"Everybody said we had to face some adversity to find out what kind of team we really were," Mauk said. "We were down 10 points, but somehow it felt like we were ahead. No one was complaining."
Even late in the game, after his fumble gave Rutgers the ball back at the Scarlet Knights' 37 with another chance at retaking the lead, Mauk was not shaken. While understandably disappointed with his mistake, Mauk remained confident in his team.
"I was frustrated with that fumble," Mauk said, "but at the same time, I still had this feeling that we were going to win."
For a team that only trailed once all season - in the first quarter against Marshall two weeks ago - that confidence was encouraging.
"I knew we were going to face adversity," Kelly said. "We've got to lead them through it."
Lead them through he did, and Kelly's team is undefeated under his guidance, seemingly on its way to becoming a second major program in a pigskin-crazed state that's never had one.
"One of the reasons why I took the job was that it was an undervalued stock," Kelly said. "If you can do it in Piscataway, N.J., you can do it in Cincinnati, Ohio."
Meanwhile, the team that "did it" in Piscataway has lost consecutive games for the first time in two years, and still has its own steps to take to rise up the ranks as a power program.
"There are no excuses," Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano said. "You just have to go back to work and get better. I'm not ashamed of anything we did. We fought our tails off and it wasn't good enough tonight. We have to work hard and work smarter and see how we can do it."
One thing that will need to happen for Rutgers to take that next step forward is that Mike Teel will have to be able to actively win the game. For two weeks in a row, opponents have clamped down on Ray Rice, holding him under 100 yards and daring Teel to win the game, and for two weeks in a row, Rutgers has come up on the short end. Still, Teel showed moments and stretches of poise in the contest, and his coach remains confident in him.
"Mike Teel is one of the toughest competitors I've ever been around," Schiano said. "Mike's led us to a lot of victories, and Mike will continue to lead us to a bunch of victories down the road."
Rice is just as confident in his quarterback.
"He's still the greatest quarterback, in my mind," Rice said. "Everybody makes mistakes."
Rutgers will look to bounce back from Saturday night's mistakes next week against Syracuse, and the team's focus will be entirely on the next step ahead.
"We're not worrying about the Big East," senior defensive tackle Eric Foster said. "What we're worrying about is tomorrow. Come back as a team and chop tomorrow."
Meanwhile, tonight, Kelly, Mauk and the Bearcats are savoring their sixth win of the season, a win on the road against a ranked opponent with an intense crowd in the stadium. It was a big game in front of a big crowd with a big-time feel, and the Bearcats came out with a big win.
"It was a fun game to be associated with," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said. "It was clean, it was hard-hitting, it was physical. It was a great environment. Great college football game."