Greg Ward Jr. returned from a one-game absence and ran for two fourth-quarter touchdowns to help No. 6 Houston - steadied by its fabulous defense - pull away to a 40-16 victory over Cincinnati on Thursday night.
The Cougars (3-0, 1-0 American Athletic) trailed 16-12 early in the fourth quarter before Ward and the defense took over. Ward had the scoring runs to regain the lead, and the Cougars returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns to close it out.
"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."
Ward sat out a 42-0 victory over Lamar on Saturday with a sore shoulder. He came through pregame warmups fine Thursday and 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.
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," Cincinnati coach Tommy 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.
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.