CINCINNATI (AP) — Greg Ward Jr. threw an interception in the end zone. Cincinnati responded by going down the field, getting a touchdown and grabbing the lead and the momentum.
For the first time this season, No. 6 Houston was on the road and feeling the pressure. How would the Cougars respond?
Ward ran for two fourth-quarter touchdowns, and the Cougars’ fabulous defense returned a couple of interceptions for touchdowns as they pulled away to a 40-16 victory over Cincinnati on Thursday night.
“The fourth quarter exemplified a veteran team that’s played in big games,” coach Tom Herman said. “They go down and score and we come back and take the lead.”
Nobody was under the spotlight more than Ward, who sat out a 42-0 victory over Lamar on Saturday because of a sore shoulder. He came through pregame warmups without an issue, and got treatment on the sideline between series.
“They were keeping my shoulder warm on the sideline,” Ward said. “It tends to get tight. I was thankful to be out there.”
The Cougars(3-0, 1-0 American Athletic) trailed 16-12 early in the fourth quarter before Ward and the defense took over.
Ward dispelled any worries about his arm with a 39-yard touchdown pass on the Cougars’ second series. He was 24 of 36 for 326 yards with two interceptions, and he ran 26 times for 73 yards.
“We put in a defense just for him, some guys that were faster,” Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. “We did a good job in pass coverage and he’d just pull it down and run. That’s hard to defend.”
Houston’s defense took away any semblance of a running game from Cincinnati (2-1, 0-1) and accounted for 16 points on its own — a safety and the two interception returns by Steven Taylor and Howard Wilson.
The Cougars haven’t allowed any of their last five opponents to rush for 100 yards. Cincinnati managed only 30 yards rushing, putting too much pressure on redshirt sophomore Hayden Moore, whose two fourth-quarter interceptions allowed the Cougars to pull away.
Moore had never faced a defense so good. He made an impact early with a 61-yard touchdown pass , but the lack of a running game was tough to overcome. Moore finished 21 of 37 for 275 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and three sacks.
“You can’t beat any good team if you can’t run the football,” Tuberville said. “They put all the pressure on our quarterback and receivers and they dictated the game to us.”
HOUSTON: Oh that defense. The Cougars didn’t need to get a lot out of their offense — and Ward wasn’t at his best — in order to win a tough league game on the road. That’s another good sign in a season that opened with a 33-23 win over Oklahoma.
“It was ugly for a long time,” Herman said. “I think we’ll be OK if we can take care of the self-inflicted wounds.”
CINCINNATI: The Bearcats have been overly reliant on a pass-heavy offense the last two years. The defense’s showing on Thursday was encouraging — it simply wore down. The defense also looked solid during a 38-20 win at Purdue on Saturday, coming up with five interceptions.
“We got a little tired at the end,” Tuberville said. “The defense was out there forever.”
HOUSTON: The Cougars have their highest ranking since they were No. 3 in 1990. Any chance to move up? The top three teams in the poll — Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State — all play road games against ranked teams this week, while Michigan and Clemson are at home.
CINCINNATI: The Bearcats got one vote in this week’s poll, and did nothing to suggest they deserve more.
HOUSTON: The Cougars will be looking for another easy time at Texas State on Sept. 24. Last year, Ward led them to a 59-14 win by throwing for four touchdowns and running for two more as Houston piled up 689 yards.
CINCINNATI: The Bearcats host Miami of Ohio on Sept. 24 for the Victory Bell. They’ve won 10 in a row over their local rival, although Moore had to overcome four fourth-quarter turnovers last year to pull out a 37-33 win in Oxford.
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