Bearcats coach Butch Jones has spent the past week doing some heavy-duty recruiting.
No, not for players. For fans.
Jones is trying to get a full house for a change at 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium when Cincinnati (7-2, 3-1 Big East) plays what amounts to an elimination game for the league title on Saturday. The Bearcats need to beat No. 22 Rutgers (8-1, 4-0) to stay among the front-runners with only two games left.
In addition to preparing his team, Jones made the rounds during the week, trying to get fans excited enough to show up. He went on court at halftime of a Cincinnati basketball game on Tuesday night and pleaded with the 5,617 fans to show up on Saturday.
"We need your help, and we need your support," Jones said. "We need you. We need to sell Nippert out. It's time to step up."
Then, as additional enticement, he said there would be only one ranked team when the day was done, and it would be Cincinnati.
If not, the Bearcats will be in trouble and the Scarlet Knights will be in good shape heading into their final two games. Rutgers plays at Pittsburgh and closes the regular season at home against No. 20 Louisville, which has lost one league game.
If the Scarlet Knights win out, they win the title.
"I think anytime you can get to this point in the season and go into a Saturday game and know that you're playing for a championship, I think that is what you dream about as you're growing up as a football player, as you're coming through this profession as a coach," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. "These are the games that I think are really enjoyable not just for the fans and the fan bases, but for the programs and the players as well."
Jones has been working on that fan base.
Even though the Bearcats have won or shared three of the last four Big East titles, they've managed to fill the league's smallest stadium only once this season. They drew 24,124 fans for the last home game, a win over Syracuse that got them back in the championship race.
"We talk about playing meaningful games in November," Jones said. "I think people around here should be ecstatic."
A full house would help the Bearcats, who are giving senior Brendon Kay only his second career start — his first at home.
Jones benched struggling Munchie Legaux in the second half of the 35-24 win over Syracuse. Kay completed all three of his passes, one of them for a touchdown, to help the Bearcats pull it out. He made his first career start last week at Temple and went 13 of 21 for 244 yards with touchdowns of 71 and 65 yards, putting the big play back into the league's highest-scoring offense.
Kay was nervous in the first half, but led the Bearcats to scores on four of their last five drives of the first half, setting up a 34-10 win. He felt a lot calmer heading into his second start.
"It's a confidence boost just to get out there and do it," Kay said. "You do it so many times in practice, but you're wondering if it'll be the same in a game."
He'll be facing a much tougher defense this time. The Scarlet Knights allow only 13.4 points per game, fifth-best in the nation. Linebacker Khaseem Greene, the league's defensive player of the year in 2011, had had 22 tackles in a 28-7 win over Army last week, the fifth-highest total in league history.
Rutgers is unbeaten on the road this season, but has never won at Nippert Stadium, going 0-4 with a tie in 1989.
"Anytime you go on the road, there are unique challenges," Flood said. "But the challenges are, to me, based on the people that you're playing, not really the building. There's always a crowd advantage. There will be a spirited crowd there on Saturday. And those are things we'll have to deal with as an offense more than anything."
With games left at home against South Florida (3-6, 1-4) and at Connecticut (4-6, 1-4), Cincinnati knows this is its final chance to knock off one of the front-runners and get in position for another title.
"This week could be considered our Big East championship game," guard Austen Bujnoch said. "It's either win or go home. If we don't get the Big East championship, it's a failure for us."
AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan in Piscataway, N.J., contributed to this report.