Munchie Legaux threw a career-high three touchdown passes on Saturday, and Cincinnati's defense got two scores of its own, setting up a 35-27 victory over Connecticut that left the Bearcats one of three teams sharing the Big East title.
UConn (5-7, 3-4) needed a win to finish bowl eligible for a fifth straight season. The Huskies fell behind 14-0 and never got in position to catch up.
"You're on the road against a quality team that's playing for a meaningful season, and we're playing for a meaningful season," first-year coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "We played well, just not well enough."
Pasqualoni replaced Randy Edsall, who led UConn to a berth in the Fiesta Bowl and left for Maryland. The transition season was a struggle — the Huskies never won back-to-back games.
"The kids have been great about the transition," Pasqualoni said. "They practiced hard and cooperated with everything we wanted to do. This group of seniors played in a bowl game and won their conference. I wish I could have helped them more. This group of seniors will always be special to me."
The Bearcats (9-3, 5-2) were coming off a four-win season and had defied expectations by taking control of the race before senior quarterback Zach Collaros broke his right ankle. They won their last two games to finish in a three-way tie atop the league.
Although the Bearcats got their third title in four years, they likely will miss out on the league's BCS bid. No. 22 West Virginia (9-3, 5-2) will get it if, as expected, the Mountaineers are the highest-ranked Big East team in the final BCS standings.
Louisville (7-5, 5-2) also shared the title and would have gotten the bid if the Bearcats had lost on Saturday. The Huskies didn't have another upset in them.
UConn quarterback Johnny McEntee helped the Bearcats get off to a fast start. Lineman Walter Stewart plucked the ball from his passing hand in the end zone for Cincinnati's first touchdown, and Drew Frey returned an interception 15 yards for a 14-0 lead.
"I think we dug ourselves too big a hole," said McEntee, who was 20 of 40 for 252 yards with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and six sacks. "After the half, we felt like we had a fresh start and almost came back, but we didn't."
Cincinnati led the league race before Collaros broke his right ankle during a loss to West Virginia. Legaux, a sophomore, gave his best performance in his third collegiate start, going 15 of 35 for 217 yards.
Legaux had a 22-yard touchdown pass to Alex Chisum and a 13-yarder to Anthony McClung that made it 28-3. The second touchdown pass came at the end of a 72-yard drive in which the Bearcats converted three long third downs and a second-and-26.
McClung also had a 31-yard TD catch in the third quarter. The sophomore had career highs with 8 catches for 142 yards.
The Bearcats pulled ahead 35-12, and then withstood McEntee's two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Cincinnati got the ball back with 5:40 left and essentially ran out the clock, draining off the final seconds with a punt. Then, fireworks went off overhead and the celebration began.
Cincinnati went to the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl in 2008-09 as outright champs under Brian Kelly, then had that four-win season last year in transition. The Bearcats knew they wouldn't get the BCS bid, but still wanted another title.
"How can you explain a feeling like that?" senior linebacker J.K. Schaffer said. "Sitting there in December and January watching bowl games from the couch definitely motivates you. We weren't used to losing. We were used to winning and that's it."
Now, UConn has to watch from the couch a year after their championship season.
UConn shared the Big East title last season with West Virginia and Pittsburgh. The Huskies got the BCS bid on the tiebreakers and lost to Oklahoma 48-20 in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Huskies were coming off a 40-22 win that knocked Rutgers out of contention for a share of the league title. They never fully recovered from the two early turnovers for touchdowns. All the Huskies managed were field goals of 35, 46, 53 and 43 yards by Dave Teggart while they fell behind 35-12.