Cincinnati-Houston Preview

Greg Ward Jr.'s efficiency in Houston's dynamic offense has confused defenses and garnered plenty of well-deserved national attention for the last season and a half.

The No. 18 Cougars are playing just as well on the other side of the ball, creating a balanced squad that has helped them dominate the majority of their opponents.

Cincinnati couldn't slow down Ward for 59-plus minutes in last year's meeting, but the Bearcats solved Houston's defense and came up with a game-ending stop that has them heading into Saturday's road matchup carrying a five-game series winning streak.

Ward is among the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks, tying for second in the FBS with a 70.8 completion percentage while leading the country - regardless of position - with 16 rushing touchdowns. He threw for 221 yards and a touchdown while running for another in last week's 34-0 rout of Vanderbilt - the first time an SEC school had been shut out in a nonconference game in 11 years.

Houston (8-0, 4-0 American Athletic Conference) is averaging 45.9 points to rank fifth in scoring, and it's tied for the FBS lead with 22 turnovers forced. The Cougars have outscored their last three opponents 135-17 while not allowing a point in the second half.

Baylor is the only other school in the nation to have beaten six opponents by at least 21 points.

"Our defensive staff is the best in the country, and we train really, really hard during the week and even in our practices," coach Tom Herman said Monday. "We started Aug. 6, and it's the first of November right now, and we're still going as hard now as we did in training camp. These guys have responded to the way that we prepare in account of our culture."

A perfect season could land Houston in a major bowl game, but the Cougars face a big potential stumbling block in fellow unbeaten and No. 15 Memphis on Nov. 14.

"It really has no bearing on how we prepare for Cincinnati, because the culture we have instilled in our program is that we've got 14 one-game seasons," Herman said. "We have another opportunity to go 1-0 again against a conference opponent (this) week."

Houston hasn't beaten the Bearcats (5-3, 2-2) since 1999. A 38-31 loss in the last meeting Dec. 6 marks the most points it has allowed over its last 21 games, with the Cougars giving up 500 yards.

Ward threw for a career-high 360 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 84 and another score. He drove the Cougars to the Cincinnati 11-yard line with 13 seconds left, but tossed three consecutive incompletions as time ran out.

Ward could make it even tougher on the Bearcats this time given Houston's improvement on defense.

"This kid runs it, throws it, makes big plays out of bad plays," Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. "If you're going to run this type of offense, this is the perfect quarterback. It's a head start (over) 99 percent of the other teams in the country. Insert him on some of these teams that are supposed to be pretty good, and he'll take them to another level. One mistake, and he takes advantage of it.

"It's going to be hard for us knowing we've got to play better than (how) we've played."

Gunner Kiel missed two games after suffering a concussion in a loss to Memphis on Sept. 24, but he's returned to guide Cincinnati to back-to-back wins. He threw for 327 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-13 victory over Connecticut on Oct. 24 before completing all 15 of his passes with five TDs in last week's 52-7 romp over Central Florida.

It was the most pass attempts without an incompletion in an FBS game in 20 years.

"Finally being back and playing again and getting into a rhythm is a great feeling," Kiel said. "Things are rolling right now. We've just got to keep pushing."

Kiel tossed two touchdowns in last year's meeting with Houston but was forced to leave early in the second half with leg cramps.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.