HOUSTON (AP) — After six weeks of easy wins, Tom Herman's No. 18 Houston Cougars found themselves in a struggle.
Under pressure from locked-in quarterback Gunner Kiel, who had a career high 523 passing and four touchdown passes already, with two minutes to go, No. 18 Houston needed to make a stand in the fourth quarter to preserve their undefeated season.
Herman's defense came through, forcing four straight incompletions on the final drive to preserve a 33-30 win over Cincinnati on Saturday and remain unbeaten.
"We hadn't had a four quarter battle like that since Louisville so it's been a while," Herman said. "We knew they were going to score some points and we found a way to win it there at the end."
The Cougars then held on to improve to 9-0 (5-0 American Athletic Conference) for the first time since 2011 — ahead of a potential matchup between undefeated teams when it plays Memphis Nov. 14.
"From the last couple of years, we usually at the end of the games, we can't finish," Houston linebacker Elandon Roberts said. "When Coach Herman came in we built that culture 10 months ago and it's really showing at the end of these games."
Kiel's big day was dampened as Houston intercepted two of his passes and forced three turnovers while getting help with personal-foul penalties on two different scoring drives.
"We're killing ourselves on offense," Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said. "We've got a good offense, but you can't give up nine points to them on offense. We're not good enough to do that on the road, especially on defense."
Tuberville helped put Cincinnati in a bad position when he was called for one of three personal foul's after his team was penalized on fourth and 1 — a play in which the Bearcats stopped Houston.
Houston kept the ball on the 1, and scored two plays later, the first of 16 straight points to open the second half.
"We've got to do a better job than that. When you're on the road you can't let things like that get by. We kind of just shot ourselves in the foot."
Greg Ward Jr. led scoring drives on two of three Cincinnati turnovers, finishing 16 of 24 for 161 yards with two touchdown passes and two interceptions. He also ran for 119 yards on 16 carries.
Kiel was 28 of 51 and spread out his four touchdowns to three different receivers. He also threw two interceptions.
Kiel hit Chris Moore for two touchdown passes and one each to Nate Cole and Shaq Washington for Cincinnati (5-4, 2-3). Kiel's first interception was returned 51 yards by Brandon Wilson for a touchdown early in the third quarter.
The yards through air had Herman worried, but he said he's not overly concerned; even with top NFL prospect Paxton Lynch coming to town next week.
"Hats off to them, that's an NFL quarterback throwing to probably a couple of NFL wide receivers," Herman said. "Obviously we've probably got to play better when faced with that. We were bringing a ton of stuff at them and couldn't get a ton of pressure and when we did we made it count."
Cincinnati committed 11 penalties for 84 yards and Kiel was sacked in the end zone by Trevon Stewart for a safety with 4:54 remaining in the third.
The teams were tied at 14 at halftime, but the Cougars scored 16 straight points to take command.
On the first drive of the second half, the Bearcats appeared to have stopped Houston on the 1-yard line. But a facemask and three personal misconduct fouls, including one by Tuberville, gave the Cougars another chance. Two plays later, Ward hit Tyler McCloskey for a 1-yard touchdown pass.
Kiel's touchdown pass to Moore with 5:07 left in the game made it 33-30. Moore finished with 140 yards receiving.
Kenneth Farrow rushed for 106 yards on 30 carries and a touchdown to help Houston. He opened the scoring with a 2-yard run for an early first quarter lead. His first score was set up by Joeal Williams' block of Sam Geraci's punt, putting the ball at the Bearcats 20 yard line.