AMES — The Big 12 Conference equates to a thrill-a-second gauntlet.
It’s another season rife with ever-moving land-and-air mines and unscalable mountains populated by stretched-out juggernauts.
Enter the Texas Christian Horned Frogs — Iowa State’s opponent today — who seem to fit right in among the more adaptive, spread offense-based species from Dallas, Texas, to Morgantown, W. Va.
“That’s why you came to Iowa State, to play those types of teams,” said Cyclone all-conference linebacker Jake Knott. “You match up against the best competition and see how you come out. It’s fun if you like challenges, because every week is going to be a challenge.”
It’s not a have-to proposition. Instead, ISU (3-1, 0-1) gets to measure itself against five remaining regular season foes ranked in the nation’s top 25, another who is receiving votes in the poll and the defending conference champion.
Win three, make another bowl.
The Cyclones will likely be favored in one game, the second-to-last week of the season at rebuilding Kansas.
“Every year the schedule’s been rated by most sources top five, and in two of the four, by some sources as the toughest or the second toughest,” said Cyclone Coach Paul Rhoads, who has surmounted seemingly long odds to attain bowl eligibility in two of his three previous seasons. “So I made sure we talked about it and didn’t bury our head in the sand about that very early and embraced that challenge — that we are the Big 12 and we get these opportunities and this is another one of them. Longest winning streak in the country, for cryin’ out loud.”
That cry belongs to the Horned Frogs, who have smacked a national-best 12 straight opponents to the wayside, but only one — the downtrodden Jayhawks — in Big 12 play.
It’s a small, conference-wise, sample size for TCU, which pledged to join the Big East before changing course and entering the Big 12 last October.
“Being a part of the Big 12, they probably want to prove they deserve to be right at the top, where the big boys are at,” said ISU tailback James White, a Dallas native. “They just want to prove people wrong.”
So how do the Cyclones, who are 8 1/2-point underdogs, combat their more-celebrated, freshly-minted mirror image?
By cleaning things up, plain and simple.
Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett are back to competing for the starting quarterback slot. Jantz has completed 66.9 percent of his passes this season, but coughed up four turnovers against Tech.
Barnett led the offense to wins over the Red Raiders, Kansas and national championship contender Oklahoma State in 2011.
“They’ve done really well,” ISU offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham said of his quarterbacks. “Now, doing well in practice is one thing. You’ve got to do well in the game. They’ve both embraced the competition part of it again and, shoot, I’ve seen no issues as far as my meetings or them communicating on the field both with each other or with the team.”
Questions engulfed the Cyclone offense after it mustered just 189 yards against the Red Raiders.
ISU center Tom Farniok said Monday that the collective offensive effort “wasn’t us.”
Linemate Carter Bykowski agreed — and noted the spacing was off against Tech.
“It will slow down for us,” Bykowski added. “We’re now where we’re at and we know how good we can be. We’ve just got to go do it.”
The Cyclone defense has done it, from the front four to the back end. ISU ranks 17th nationally in pass efficiency defense and 17th in scoring defense (14 points per game).
“We actually thrive on playing in the Big 12,” said safety Durrell Givens, who ranks third on the team in tackles with 24 and also boasts an interception and fumble recovery. “It’s more of a fun thing: We get to play another top-25 team.
“So it’s not a bad thing to us.”
TCU, which will be without suspended starting QB Casey Pachall, has taken notice and adjusted accordingly. The reigning Rose Bowl champs have become accustomed to being the BCS crashers, not the favorites.
“We have to go play our best football games from here on out,” TCU Coach Gary Patterson said.
So does ISU.
“I don’t know if we were bottled up as much as we put ourselves in a bottle,” Cyclone running back Jeff Woody said of last week’s offensive woes. “It wasn’t anything that they were doing that stopped us. Offensive line, the splits were too tight, clogging up the running lanes. Running backs, the reads we were making were clouded. It was just difficult to see. The quarterback was putting balls where he shouldn’t have been putting them. The wide receivers, they were trying to come back to the ball and just couldn’t get there. We were shooting ourselves in the foot more than they were stopping us. So the focus this week is eliminating those mistakes.”
Track record says that could happen.“We’re up for a challenge and ready to go,” Bykowski said.