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What you need to know for tonight’s battle between the Houston Cougars and Cincinnati Bearcats

It’ll be a tough battle, but the Bearcats can spring the upset.

Cincinnati v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It’s been a while since a truly elite program faced off against the Bearcats at home. According to UPI, Houston is the first top 10 team to visit Nippert Stadium since Nov. 17, 2007, when then-No. 5 ranked West Virginia traveled to Cincinnati to face off against the Bearcats.

But that changes tonight, as Cincinnati hosts Houston in a battle for not just AAC supremacy, but potentially for the coveted “G5” bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game.

A shared history

Cincinnati and Houston are far from strangers on the gridiron. Dating back to 1957, The Bearcats and Cougars have played a total of 24 games, with Houston winning the most recent matchup in last year’s tight 33-30 home victory.

Currently, Houston holds a 14-10 lead in the series. However, prior to last year’s loss, Cincinnati defeated Houston five consecutive times between the years of 2000-2014.

Houston, in case you forgot, is coached by Tom Herman, a Cincinnati native who is in his second season with the team after last working as an offensive coordinator at Ohio State. In his first season on the job, Herman led the Cougars to both the AAC title and a Peach Bowl victory, with Houston ending the season as the eighth ranked team in the nation.

Houston offense: Ready for launch

Houston’s offense has keyed their success in recent years and fueled coach Tom Herman’s 12-1 debut season. So far this year, Houston has found success through converting on big plays. Per advanced stats, Houston is 13th nationally in explosiveness so far this season. Another big factor in the Cougars’ ability to rack up points has been their excellent field position, averaging a start near their own 40 yard line. That’s one of the very best positions in the country.

The Cougars offense, in terms of both rushing and passing, centers on their star senior quarterback, Greg Ward, Jr., who accumulated 4,081 total yards last season, including over 1,200 rushing yards. Ward actually had more success finding the end zone on the ground than over the air last season, with 21 rushing TDs as opposed to 17 passing TDs. Still, Ward can serve as an efficient part of Houston’s aerial assault, as his 67.2% completion percentage put him ninth among all qualified quarterbacks.

Ward missed the last game against Lamar to get healthy, but he is expected to be at full strength against the Bearcats.

Ward connected most frequently with junior wideout Steven Dunbar in Week one, finding Dunbar for seven catches and 125 receiving yards. Dunbar may still be the number two target for the Cougars, however, as senior Chance Allen, despite just three catches so far this year, leads the way in targets, with 16 in his first two games. Junior Linell Bonner may also be someone to watch for, as he already has 109 receiving yards and has averaged 15.6 yards per catch.

The rushing attack has been inefficient early for Houston, as their 29.4% rushing success rate is 9th-worst in the country this season, but the Cougars have a diverse array of rushing options. However, advanced metrics show that Houston is 6th in the country in their ability to rack up big yardage on rushing plays.

Sophomore Duke Catalon led the way in week 1, with 88 yards on 22 carries in Houston’s win vs. Oklahoma. In week 2 vs. FCS school Lamar, however, the Cougars deployed a pair of freshmen, Kevrin Justice and Mulbah Car, both of whom had over 20 carries, over 100 rushing yards, and at least one touchdown. Both also topped four yards per carry in that game. While Justice and Car both may factor in to the rushing game for Houston, Ward and Catalon should lead the way.

Cincinnati defense: Room for improvement?

Cincinnati’s defense has done a good job of preventing points this season, as their 27 points against is good for 21st in FBS, although Houston’s high-powered offense should give the Bearcats their biggest challenge of the season yet, as Houston outpaces both Purdue and UT-Martin by a wide margin.

The Bearcats will need to ensure that their rushing defense has stepped up from last season, when their run defense was 10th worst in the country according to advanced metrics. Early on, this has not been an issue, as Cincinnati’s defense is ranked 14th in terms of preventing big plays so far this season. But for the Bearcats to prevail tonight, they will likely need to ensure that these numbers are more than just a product of small sample size.

The secondary has impressed in the early going this season, with seven interceptions in two games. Safety Tyrell Gilbert has been the star of the back four with 11 tackles and two picks so far. Fellow safety Zach Edwards has also been a significant contributor for the Bearcats defense, as the senior has registered 10.5 tackles in his own right. But a stealth contributor for the Bearcats secondary will be safety “Iron” Mike Tyson. The junior safety has taken a bite into opposing passes, leading the team with three interceptions.

The defensive line has not contributed too much yet in 2016, registering just one sack and 23.5 tackles in total. For the Bearcats to stop Houston’s powerful offense, the defensive line will need to take a step up and prevent their rushing attack from busting out for big gains. The front seven will be helped, however, by the presence of senior linebacker Eric Wilson, whose 18 tackles and two sacks both lead the Bearcats.

Cincinnati offense: Points will be needed

The Bearcats are coming off a 38-20 win against Purdue, their first win against a Big Ten school in 59 years. The Cincinnati offense did well to jump ahead to a 31-7 lead, only to slow down in the second half and have to fend off a Boilermaker comeback. Sophomore quarterback Hayden Moore is having a decent season, having thrown five touchdowns and only one interception thus far. Moore has averaged 7.3 yards per attempt and a 60 percent completion percentage this year, but he’ll need to have a huge game if Cincinnati wants to spring the up

Senior wideout Nate Cole is Cincy’s go-to receiver with three touchdowns on the year; he boasts the highest target rate among at 23.1%, having been targeted almost a quarter of the time. Tion Green and Mike Boone have been the Bearcats’ busiest backs, accounting for over eighty percent of Cincinnati’s running game.

Keys to the game

The Bearcats are facing a dynamic offense and a tough, physical, defensive line. They’ll need to force Houston to be one-dimensional, play smart, disciplined football, and get a little lucky, to spring the upset. But on a Thursday night, at home, with their coaching staff and offense, anything is possible.

Shourjya Mookerjee, Roey Hadar and Cameron Neimand contributed to this report.