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Golden: Next step for Iowa State? Become a Big 12 title threat

By Cedric Golden - American-Statesman Staff



Paul Rhoads and his team must win more of what they refer to as the “nitty-gritty” games.

Blowouts happen every Saturday of every fall, but there also are those nail-biters that go down to a key play or two in the final couple of minutes. Some call it winning time. In Iowa State’s locker room, it’s known as the nitty-gritty.

Rhoads has won his share of big games, but the Cyclones’ football coach is still stalking that signature season in which his team strings together several name wins and makes a real run at some Big 12 hardware.

Iowa State is in a never-ending battle for recruits with in-state rival Iowa, and the Big Ten’s Hawkeyes are still known as the big brother in the state. Rhoads knows the only way his program can make some real inroads at home is to contend for Big 12 titles, something that hasn’t yet happened in his four seasons.

In 2012, the Cyclones were 6-7 overall and 3-6 in conference play for the second straight year, but Rhoads was quick to dismiss any talk of the program being in a holding pattern. The Cyclones are 17-21 over the past three seasons — with an 0-2 record in bowl games — but Rhoads believes his team is capable of making some noise this season.

“We’re trying to get above this lingering hump of .500, which some could misconstrue as mediocrity,” he told me by phone. “But when you look at where we’ve been, it’s above it. Now we want to make it up into the top tier of this conference, and if you do that, you’re playing dang good football.”

Rhoads wants to bring mystique to Ames. Yes, the Cyclones have earned a reputation as somewhat of a giant killer during his stay. There was the victory at Nebraska in 2009 in his first season. Then there was that (close your eyes, Longhorn fans) shocking win at Texas in 2010. And let’s not forget the Friday night win over Oklahoma State in 2011 that pretty much prevented the Cowboys from playing for a national championship.

Of all those wins, it’s the one in Austin that remains the most shocking. Even though the Horns’ struggles that year were well-documented – Texas finished 5-7 and failed to play in a bowl game for the only time in Mack Brown’s tenure — the Cyclones’ 28-21 victory stood out more than a skunk in a perfume factory because Iowa State had been outscored 120-27 by Utah and Oklahoma in the two weeks leading up to the game.

Brown would agree with the skunk comparison, based on his postgame comments that day. “We stunk,” he said.

The 2013 Cyclones will have to break in a new quarterback, Sam Richardson, but the offense’s fortunes will be decided by the deepest backfield of Rhoads’ tenure. Most important will be the health of running backs James White and Shontrelle Johnson, who both battled knee injuries last year. The duo combined for 1,009 yards rushing and four touchdowns in the pistol-based attack, but Rhoads is looking for more.

“It has not overall been a productive enough of a position for us,” he said. “When James went down last year, and Shontrelle coming back and not being 100 percent, our production as an offense struggled. Having a healthy James White does help us.”

Of the two, White has the potential to be a game-breaker if he can stay on the field. He didn’t miss a day of spring practice after working his way back from offseason hernia surgery.

“That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been in the training room every day,” Rhoads said with a chuckle. “He’s pushed through it, and he appreciates the competition that exists at the position and doesn’t want to miss anything.”

If White and Johnson can stay healthy — adding juco signee Aaron Wimberly will help keep them fresh — the backs can take some pressure off of Richardson and improve a rushing attack that ranked sixth in the conference in 2012, thanks in part to the yards coming from the quarterback position.

“We just have to be more consistent in our play,” White said. “We have to go into each of these games with a big-game mentality, no matter who we are playing from week to week.”

If that happens, the Cyclones could find themselves on the right side of the scoreboard in those nitty-gritty games.


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