"We said it was going to be exciting," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said after Saturday's 38-33 victory continued USF's rapid plunge from national championship contention to last place in the Big East. "We certainly are not cookie cutter when it comes to the way we play the game of football."
Antwuan Giddens scored on a 63-yard reception and recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for a second touchdown, helping the Bearcats (7-2, 2-2) stop a two-game losing streak that knocked them out of the Top 25.
Ben Mauk tossed three TD passes and the Cincinnati defense forced eight turnovers, including four interceptions and a fumble by Matt Grothe, who threw for 382 yards but only one touchdown for USF (6-3, 1-3).
Mike Mickens returned an interception 79 yards for a touchdown, and Mauk also threw TD passes of 16 yards to Dominick Goodman and 4 yards to Earnest Jackson for Cincinnati, which led 31-14 after one quarter and 38-20 at the half.
The Bearcats, who've won seven of their first nine for the first time since 1976, remained in the race for the Big East title and a lucrative spot in the Bowl Championship Series after losing two straight to Louisville and Pittsburgh.
"This keeps us in the hunt, keeps us alive," Mauk said. "We've got to come back and play great football the next three weeks and we'll go to a BCS bowl."
USF climbed all the way to No. 2 three weeks ago, but consecutive losses to Rutgers, Connecticut and now Cincinnati threaten to drop the Bulls out of the Top 25 altogether.
Conference games remain against Syracuse, Louisville and Pitt, however coach Jim Leavitt conceded the best his team can hope for at this point is the young program's third straight bowl berth.
"I don't know if we we're the No. 2 team in the country. I don't know who else is out there. I don't know if there are any great teams this year," Leavitt said, adding that the Bulls easily could be 9-0.
"We deserved to be in there because of the games we won, the teams we beat. But you've got to stay there. ... It's not like we're getting blown out. We've had a chance to win every game."
Grothe's 8-yard TD pass to Jessie Hester Jr. trimmed Cincinnati's lead to 38-33, but USF's 2-point conversion attempt failed and Jackson returned the ensuing onside kick to the Bulls' 25.
But Cincinnati struggled to put the game out of reach the entire second half, and the final two minutes was no exception. The Bearcats turned the ball over on downs at their 39, giving Grothe a chance to pull out a dramatic victory.
The USF quarterback threw 18 yards to Marcus Edwards, then connected with Hester for a 24-yard gain to the Cincinnati 18 with eight seconds remaining. He took shots at the end zone on the next two plays, but both fell incomplete -- the last with no time left on the clock.
Mickens' interception return, Giddens' long TD reception and the receiver's other touchdown on a punt blocked by Connor Barwin all came in the first quarter, when USF turned the ball over three times.
Throw in Trae Williams' 73-yard interception return on the third play of the game, as well as Mike Jenkins' school-record 100-yard kickoff return for another USF touchdown, and it truly was a first-quarter of highlight-reel plays.
Both teams were climbing in Top 25 after winning their first six games of the season but found themselves in desperate need of a win Saturday after losing two straight in conference play.
Even though the matchup lacked some of the appeal many felt it would have after USF reached No. 2, it was still very important to the Big East race.
Mauk's third TD pass made it 38-17 with just under two minutes left in the opening half. But the Bearcats would not score again and played into USF's hands by being unable to run the ball and take much time off the clock the rest of the game.
"It left our defense exposed because we couldn't close it out," Kelly said.
Delbert Alvarado kicked a 41-yard field goal just before the half, and USF pulled within 38-27 when Grothe scored on a 7-yard run late in the third quarter.
Grothe completed 31 of 54 passes and also rushed for 75 yards on 22 carries. USF finished with 481 yards total offense to Cincinnati's 375.
Mauk was 13-of-31 for 162 yards and one interception. He led Cincinnati with 75 yards rushing on seven attempts, however Bearcats tailback Jacob Ramsey was limited to 40 yards on 21 carries.
"The way the defense fought ... to shut them out the second half, despite all the turnovers, is really something," Leavitt said. "The offense kept fighting, too. You just can't turn the ball over that many times and expect to win."