Iowa State hoping for strong start in Big 12 play

September 25, 2012

For the second year in a row, Iowa State enters Big 12 play with a perfect record, a week of rest and a hopeful buzz surrounding the program.

The Cyclones would sure like to avoid blowing that momentum like they did in 2011.

Iowa State (3-0) opens conference play Saturday against Texas Tech (3-0) fully aware of what transpired last fall. The Cyclones started the Big 12 at home against Texas after a bye and got blown out 37-14, the first of four straight losses that nearly ruined their season.

''A lot of players on our football team have been down this road, a lot of players that contributed to that loss and four-game losing streak,'' coach Paul Rhoads said. ''We can either go repeat history or we change it, write it ourselves, and I think that's the mindset they're approaching the week with.''

Rhoads said he thought last week's bye came at an opportune time for the Cyclones, who were able to get in a few extra practices as they prepare to tackle Rhoads' long-stated goal of finishing above .500 in the Big 12.

The Cyclones haven't done that since 2000, when they went 5-3 in the league. For all the good that Rhoads has done in his three-plus seasons at Iowa State, he's never won more than three Big 12 games in a season.

Iowa State's remaining schedule is daunting, too. The Cyclones have trips to No. 15 TCU, Oklahoma State and No. 12 Texas along with home games against the likes of No. 7 Kansas State, No. 16 Oklahoma and No. 9 West Virginia the day after Thanksgiving.

There are at least a few reasons to believe the Cyclones might make some noise in the Big 12.

Iowa State's defense has been very good so far, allowing just 32 total points and only 16 after the first quarter of their season-opening win over Tulsa. The Cyclones haven't allowed a touchdown in back-to-back games for the first time since the last game of 1964 and the first one of 1965, and they're 14th nationally with just 280 yards allowed per game.

Iowa State's defense broke down in the Big 12 opener in 2011, and it took about a month before it recovered. That stretch was on the minds of the Cyclones players during practice last week.

''We probably didn't have our best week of practice before taking the field against Texas, and it showed out there on the field. A bunch of mistakes,'' Iowa State safety Jacques Washington said. ''I think we all practiced well on our bye week. We're all rested up.''

On offense, quarterback Steele Jantz is still turning over the ball too much, but he's been much better in 2012 than he was a year ago.

Jantz has completed 70 percent of his passes, up from a paltry 53 percent last season, and his yards per attempt is up a yard to 6.8. He's thrown four picks in three games, though, and last year he struggled so much against Big 12 defenses that he lost the starting job halfway through the league season.

But Jantz has a more solid grip on the starting job this fall because he's significantly improved his accuracy and cut down somewhat on his mistakes.

''The mental part of the game is getting better. The fundamentals are better. The other guys around me are better,'' Jantz said. ''Putting that all together has led to a better completion percentage.''

Rhoads has made a winning season in the Big 12 a priority since training camp, but he believes the trick to reaching that goal is in narrowing the team's focus.

''We've got to focus on Tuesday. We've got to focus on that preparation and improvement, and take it day by day. If we do that? Yeah, I think we're capable of winning five or more.''