CINCINNATI -- Defensive end Connor Barwin raised the gold-topped trophy above his head, then walked through hundreds of Cincinnati fans who got on their tiptoes and reached as high as they could, hoping to touch the keepsake with their fingertips.
There's never been a day quite like this in Cincinnati.
The 16th-ranked Bearcats beat Syracuse 30-10 Saturday, then gathered in the end zone amid tightly-packed fans to hoist the trophy that represents their first Big East title during their fourth season in the league.
"We got smacked around our first year in the Big East," said receiver Mardy Gilyard, munching on an orange he plucked from the artificial turf. "I'm at a loss for words. It's just utter bliss."
The Bearcats (10-2, 6-1) are headed to a BCS bowl -- likely the Orange or Sugar -- for the first time in their history. They clinched the spot when West Virginia lost at Pitt on Friday, taking most of the drama out of the last home game.
Still, they made a little history. The Bearcats tied the school record with their 10th win, the second straight season they've reached the mark. Cincinnati has a game left in Hawaii before heading to its bowl.
The Orange (3-9, 1-6) are headed for an offseason of change, starting at the top.
Syracuse went 10-47 in coach Greg Robinson's four seasons, including 3-25 in the Big East. He was fired on Nov. 16, effective the end of the season, and the Orange responded by rallying in the fourth quarter to beat Notre Dame 24-23 in South Bend last week.
The Orange wanted to give Robinson a noteworthy send-off in Cincinnati, trying to end a season with back-to-back wins for the first time in six years. Instead, the send-off was as grim as the season.
"It's not good," Robinson said. "It's not good at all. I wished we had played better. Whatever. It is what it is. I'm starting to feel the emotions now. I'm trying to block it out. We have a team meeting tomorrow. I don't want to say a lot of stuff I haven't thought about."
Cam Dantley, who led two late touchdown drives in South Bend, was back to his pre-Irish form. Early in the fourth quarter, the senior quarterback was 1-for-15 for 5 yards with an interception that set up one of Cincinnati's touchdowns.
It wasn't all the quarterback's fault. Several times, wide-open receivers dropped well-thrown passes. Dantley finished 6-of-23 for 59 yards with an interception and three sacks.
"I'm trying to brush it off as much as I can," Dantley said. "We have to let it go. We just didn't get it going. When you have one completion for three quarters, you're not going to get it done."
Tony Pike took advantage of a defense that gave a lot of cushion, conceding the short pass. Pike, playing with a plate and six screws in his broken left (non-passing) forearm, finished 28-of-44 for 272 yards. Penalties held the Bearcats back -- 10 in all, for 107 yards.
The penalties forced Cincinnati to settle for three field goals by Jake Rogers, who had missed five in a row coming into the game. He connected from 45, 38 and 45 yards.
Fans hurled oranges onto the field after every score, despite warnings over the public address system. Another barrage of citrus hit the field as the clock ran out. Then, everyone gathered in the end zone for a trophy presentation that completed an amazing season
Senior quarterback Dustin Grutza broke his lower right leg in the second game, and Pike broke his arm in the fourth. A redshirt freshman got them through the next two games. With his forearm wrapped in a protective cast, Pike has started the past six games, getting better as he went along.
With the game in hand, Grutza came in for Cincinnati's final drive and handed off on every play.
"It was a little surprising, just the way things unfolded this year," said Pike, eating a slice of Gilyard's orange. "It's been a total team effort."
When the Big East accepted the Bearcats in November 2002, league officials raved about Bob Huggins' basketball program but didn't even mention the football team. Huggins' team seemed to have a much better chance of contending for a title when Cincinnati entered the league in 2005.
Instead, Huggins was ousted, the basketball program has struggled, and the football team has won a title in coach Brian Kelly's second season.
Asked if he's done all he can at Cincinnati, Kelly said, "There's so much more to accomplish. We averaged around 31,000 fans; we need to see 35,000. We can show that not only do we play for Big East championships, we now want to get into the conversation for the national championship.
"There's still a lot of work to be done here."
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