No. 18 Houston opens tough stretch vs SEC's Vanderbilt

HOUSTON (AP) The 18th-ranked No. 18 Houston Cougars have hit arguably the toughest stretch of their season, starting Saturday against the Vanderbilt Commodores.

The Cougars have four of their last five games at home, which should help against Vanderbilt, Cincinnati, No. 16 Memphis and Navy.

However, first-year coach Tom Herman is quick to point out that being at home doesn't matter if they don't execute.

''I'd rather it be this way than the other way; having four road games as your last five,'' Herman said. ''At the end of the day we have to go out and execute whether we're at home or on the road. The one place that it will benefit us is not traveling.''

Houston will have a challenge over the final five weeks. None of the Cougars' first seven opponents have winning records, with the seven teams a combined 13-37. The final five opponents for Houston have a combined record of 22-13.

The Cougars already defeated one team from a Power 5 conference in Louisville September 12 and know what defeating another school from a Power 5 conference would do for them.

''They understand that there doesn't need to be a whole lot of motivation in terms of the opponent that you are playing,'' Herman said. ''I want to make sure this week that the focus and preparation is solid. Our guys know who they are, and what (Vanderbilt) did last week to Missouri and the conference that they are in, I'm confident that they will be excited to play them.''

Some things to know when Houston hosts Vanderbilt:

RUNNING COMMODORES: Vanderbilt not only has Ralph Webb running well, but also Darius Sims helping the team average 158.3 yards rushing per game. The Commodores also are coming off a game where they ran for 168 yards against Missouri, the most allowed by the Tigers' stingy defense all season.

WARD A HANDFUL: Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr., leads the nation with 15 rushing touchdowns, is ninth nationally with an average of 344.4 yards of total offense per game and is the only player nationally to average over 200 passing yards per game (247.7) and over 90 rushing yards per game (96.7). He ranks in the top 10 nationally in eight different stat categories. The junior quarterback is also third nationally in scoring with 96 points while ranking fifth in points responsible for per game with 21.4 per game.

STINGY VANDY: With coach Derek Mason also serving as defensive coordinator this season, the Commodores have turned into one of the nation's best defenses. Vanderbilt currently ranks third nationally on third-down conversions, allowing only 22 percent, and ranks behind only Michigan and Clemson. The Commodores also are ranked fifth in rushing defense and 22nd allowing 316.6 yards per game. They also are tied for 13th nationally giving up just 16.3 points per game after facing high-powered offenses Western Kentucky, Mississippi and Middle Tennessee.

COUGAR `D': Houston will present its only challenges on defense ranking ninth nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 98.3 yards per game, while ranking seventh in rushing offense with an average of 291.7 yards per game. Linebacker Elandon Roberts leads the nation in solo tackles with eight per game and is fourth in sacks, with 1.3 per contest, while linebacker Steven Taylor is fifth nationally in sacks, with 1.14 per game, and sixth in tackles for loss, with 1.9 per game.

BIG GAME OUTSIDE OF SEC: The Commodores are taking the Cougars as seriously as any SEC teams they have played and will play this season and are looking to knock Houston from the ranks of the unbeaten. ''Even if Houston wasn't undefeated, it would still feel like a big game to us,'' Vandy center Spencer Pulley said. ''They haven't lost a game. They've been able to put up a lot of points and beat teams pretty handily. It definitely isn't a game that we take lightly by any means. Even though it is out of conference, we still take it as a big game and we are focusing on this week just like any other week.''

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AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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