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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bearcats at #25 Houston Cougars; Meet Greg Ward Jr.

Cincinnati makes a tough road trip to Houston, Texas to face-off with the 8-0 #25 Houston Cougars in a huge AAC clash.

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Game

Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015

Houston, Texas

3:00 PM ET


Meet the Opponent

Coached by former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, Houston is one of the few remaining undefeated teams in the country at 8-0 and have won nearly every one of their games in convincing fashion. The Cougars offense hasn't scored under 34 points all season and their closest loss was a three-point win on the road against Louisville, 34-31, in Week 2. While the general consensus is that Houston hasn't played many good teams, you can't deny their dominance over the schedule placed before them. Over the last three games, the Cougars have outscored Tulane (on the road), UCF (on the road) and Vanderbilt, 135-17, for what it's worth.

The Houston offense is crazy explosive, much like the rest of the AAC it seems, and it all starts with Herman's offense, which starts and ends with junior quarterback Greg Ward Jr. How impactful has Ward been? He has 1,955 yards passing, completing 70.8% of his passes and has 11 touchdowns compared to only two interceptions. Plus, he is dynamic in the run game, rushing for 710 yards on the season, averaging 5.8 yards per carry and has the lead nationwide with 16 rushing touchdowns. He ranks 45th in the country with that rushing yardage and leads Heisman-frontrunner Leonard Fournette when it comes to getting into the endzone.

Part of what makes Ward so dangerous though, is that he isn't alone. Kenneth Farrow leads the team in rushing yards with 751 himself, sports a 5.9 average and nine touchdowns. The Cougars are spreading the ball around through the air with three receivers over 22 receptions and 300 yards. Demarcus Ayers leads the way with 713 yards receiving on 56 receptions. He has five touchdowns. Houston, as an offense, is 7th nationally, averaging 537.4 total yards per game.

Defensively, the Cougars have played solid, convincing football, ranked 30th in the country and only giving up an average of 339.9 total yards per game. Their defense only gives up an average of 17.2 points per game and has held their opponents to 3.0 yards per carry on the ground. The Cougars have also been opportunistic defensively, reeling in 12 interceptions through eight games and forcing 13 fumbles, in which they recovered 10. Houston leads the NCAA with a turnover margin of +15.

If you are looking for the Houston defensive playmakers, look no further than the top three tacklers on the team. Senior linebacker Elandon Roberts has 90 total tackles on the season with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Junior linebacker Steven Taylor has 61 total tackles and leads the team with 8.0 sacks to go along with an interception, a forced fumble and even a blocked kick. Senior safety Adrian McDonald is third on the team with 50 total tackles, but leads the Cougars with four interceptions.

Houston Offense vs. Cincinnati Defense

Let's just say that this doesn't look pretty on paper.

Ward is a phenomenal talent. In a preseason write-up, I wrote about how Ward had question marks as a passer, yet, here we are, talking about a guy who is completing 70% of his passes in an offensive system that Herman should clearly patent (Ohio State probably wishes he was back too). Ward has the elusiveness and the ability as a passer to torment defenses much better than Cincinnati's and that's, quite frankly, not as critical of the Bearcats as it sounds. Ward is that dangerous.

Cincinnati's best chance against the Ward-led Cougars is to contain him to the pocket, which actually might play right into the Bearcats' strengths since their pass rush hasn't really gotten upfield this season anyway. The problem is that Ward can still hurt you from the pocket and the Houston run game hasn't really been stopped this season, between Ward and Farrow. Not to mention, the Cincinnati defense is really a shot in the dark on what we're going to see, considering the overwhelming youth at key positions. They could play fast and tough, or they could get caught out of position and lose contain on Ward early and often. I can't help but foresee some struggles for the Bearcats defensively on the road.

Now, to be fair, the Bearcats' defense have looked solid over the past two weeks against the likes of UConn and UCF at home. On the other side, Houston has looked unstoppable all season offensively, against the likes of Tennessee Tech, Louisville, Texas State, Tulsa, SMU, Tulane, Vanderbilt and... well... UCF. My point is, that we are likely getting exaggerated looks at both units. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, the Cougars are more likely to play unstoppable than the Bearcats are to replicate their last two impressive defensive showings.

Houston Defense vs. Cincinnati Offense

Let's pick up with where we left off in the above section. Houston's schedule hasn't been particularly daunting to date. Their toughest games, from my perspective, have been at Louisville, who has now fallen to 4-4 in the ACC, and a shootout with Tulsa (also 4-4). Against Louisville, the Houston defense surrendered 395 total yards of offense with 325 of those yards coming through the air. Against Tulsa, the Cougars allowed 456 total yards of offense with a more balanced showing from the Golden Hurricane with 326 though the air and 130 on the ground.

The reason why I say this, is because it is hard to believe that Houston's defense is really the 30th best defense in the country. They are certainly talented and present a number of challenges for the Bearcats, but Cincinnati's offense is more talented and more explosive than Tulsa's overall, which should mean we are going to see some points. One matchup to watch though is the Cincinnati run game against the Houston run defense. The Cougars have only allowed an average of 103.6 yards per game, which is good enough for 11th in the country. The Cincinnati three-headed monster could have some tough sledding.

Now, the impact plays that Houston has this season are concerning. With 25 sacks as a team (compared to Cincinnati's nine), 12 interceptions and 13 forced fumbles, Cincinnati will need to take care of the ball, which was a major problem in the early-going this season. Kiel has only thrown five interceptions this season himself and should be able to find success against the Cougars, but with the offensive firepower that Houston brings to the table, the Bearcats will likely need a mistake-free game from Kiel and the Bearcats offense.

Special Teams

Cincinnati's Andrew Gantz is 35-for-35 on extra points and 17-for-21 on field goals with a long of 51. Punter Sam Geraci has been solid this season, averaging 45.1 yards per punt.

Kyle Bullard started the season at kicker, but has since been replaced by Ty Cummings, who has gone 3-for-3 with a long of 37 yards. Punter Logan Piper averages 40.7 yards per punt.


Score: Cincinnati 45, Houston 52

It's unlikely that my score prediction will be accurate, but the point remains... there will be points. Cincinnati ranks 5th nationally in total offense and Houston ranks 7th. Both offenses figure to move the ball and the scoreboard should light up. The problem for Cincinnati is that the offense will likely have to play a perfect, clean, turnover-free game, which is a tall task even for a unit with the talent the Bearcats have.

Cincinnati will try to establish balance with the run game, but I see this game going more the way of the 53-46 loss to Memphis earlier this season with the passing yardage piling up quickly as each team trades blows on big plays. If you are old-school and miss the days of great defense, shield your eyes from this one.

Now, certainly Cincinnati has a chance. In fact, I feel they will be just as tough for Houston as Memphis will be a week from now, but the Cincinnati defense will struggle to limit the Cougars offensively.

Not to mention, Cincinnati has to avoid turning the ball over against a team that leads the nation in turnover differential with a +15 margin and I just can't see that going in the Bearcats' favor. In a game like this, against an offense like Houston's, one turnover could make all the difference. With that small margin for error, it's hard to see Cincinnati winning this one on the road.