Bearcats take on Cougars with an unstoppable defense

Oct 31, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Gunner Kiel (11) throws a pass in the second half against the UCF Knights at Nippert Stadium. The Bearcats won 52-7.

Aaron Doster/Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

HOUSTON (AP) — No. 18 Houston gets a big change of pace this weekend in its bid to remain undefeated.

The Cougars shutout Vanderbilt 34-0 last weekend, stifling a struggling offense. This Saturday’s game will be a much stiffer challenge for the Houston defense.

Cincinnati quarterbacks Gunner Kiel and Hayden Moore have led the Bearcats (5-3, 2-2 American Athletic Conference) to 38.5 points per game.

Houston coach Tom Herman knows the challenge for his defense will be difficult. And he is expecting to see a lot of Kiel.

"We do understand that when the other kid comes in their packages don’t change very much, but he is a slightly better runner, so you just have to be mindful of that," Herman said.

Houston’s defense allowed 185 yards against Vanderbilt and forced four turnovers, which led to 21 points. Over its last three games, Houston has outscored opponents 135-17 and not allowed a score in the second half.

"Momentum is a really powerful thing, especially when you’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-old young men," Herman said. "The strong performances breed confidence and, confidence in turn breeds stronger performances, which in turn breeds more confidence. It’s a spiral. An upward spiral."

The Cougars (8-0, 4-0) have four games left for a perfect regular season and a chance at a New Year’s Day bowl. Herman said they aren’t feeling any pressure.

"Pressure is that uneasy feeling that you have when you’re not prepared," Herman said. "We’re prepared every week. Our team has a lot of confidence in the way that we go about our business in terms of preparation. There is no big picture when you talk to our staff or our players. We have no concern about the big picture."

Other things to watch for:

KIEL GUNNING IT: Kiel, a junior, has thrown for 1,514 yards and 12 touchdowns with five interceptions while completing 69 percent of his passes. He missed two games after suffering a neck injury against Memphis, but since returning has completed 41 of 50 passes for 646 yards and seven touchdowns in two wins, including a perfect 15 of 15 for 319 yards and five scores Saturday. Moore, a freshman, has thrown for 1,434 yards and eight touchdowns with six interceptions on 94 of 159 passing.

WARD A CHALLENGE: Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr., presents a challenge of his own for the Bearcats. The junior is a dual threat who leads the nation with 16 rushing touchdowns and is third in the nation with 96 points scored. Ward has been dangerous in the air, too, throwing for 1,955 yards and 11 touchdowns and completing nearly 71 percent of his passes.

BEARCATS DEFENSE: Cincinnati has allowed 26.4 points per game and nearly 377 yards of offense, including almost 173 yards a game on the ground. The defense is led by linebacker Eric Wilson’s 76 tackles, 3 1-2 tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries. It has held its last two opponents to a combined 20 points as Cincinnati improved to 4-0 when holding opponents to 23 points or fewer.

HOUSTON O-LINE: Houston has lost four offensive linemen who were starters at some point this season to injuries, but the unit continues to do well despite the setbacks. Ben Dew, Zach Johnson and Josh Thomas have been lost with season-ending injuries, and the Cougars moved former defensive linemen Mason Denley and Kameron Eloph to the offensive line to provide depth. Through eight games, Houston has used 11 linemen and six different starting lineups on the line.

BEARCATS ON ROAD: Cincinnati plays three of its final four games on the road, starting Saturday. The Bearcats will be home against Tulsa on Nov. 14 before finishing at South Florida on Nov. 20 and at East Carolina on Nov. 28. The Bearcats are 1-2 on the road so far this season, completing less than 57 percent of their passes on the road for 1,103 yards and six touchdowns. At home, the Bearcats have completed nearly 69 percent of their passes for 1,862 yards and 15 scores.