AMES — Call it a balancing act.
And it’s almost worthy of Nik Wallenda.
On one hand, first-year Iowa State offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham wants to see big plays emanate from his unit more frequently than ever before.
On the other, he needs quarterback Steele Jantz and his teammates to zealously value the football and turn around a turnover-margin that in 2011 ranked last in the Big 12 Conference.
Welcome to the stage for that finely-spun tightrope: Today’s season opener against Tulsa, which kicks off at 2:30 p.m. at Jack Trice Stadium.
Front and center in the bold yet frugal game plan?
Jantz, who showed a penchant for big plays, but wasn’t always ball-secure as a starter last season.
“There’s always a risk-reward part of it and that’s the choice good quarterbacks make and decide, ‘Yep, I can fit it in there,’ or, ‘No, I need to check down and take the four-yard gain,’” Messingham said. “You see the guys that are really, really good, they take the four-yard gain more times than they take the deep one. The key is, when they have the deep opportunity, they make that play.”
The Golden Hurricane defense, on paper, could cause an opposing quarterback’s eyes to light up.
But there’s a balancing act there, as well.
Tulsa ranked 117th out of 120 FBS teams last season in passing yards allowed at 286.3 per game.
They also boast seven pick-sixes in the past two seasons.
“They’re fast and they play hard,” said Jantz, who threw for 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season. “I think they’re smart, too. They have a couple blitzes and they’re good at disguising coverages. Definitely not someone to overlook or prepare lightly for.”
By all accounts, Jantz’ steadiness at the wheel has improved — from prep to reps.
As for those bread-and-butter four-yard (and potentially more) gains …
“His underneath and intermediate game, throwing the football, I think, are really improved,” Cyclone coach Paul Rhoads said. “When we recruited him, I though the best thing he did was throw the deep ball. He’s still doing that, but he understands the urgency with the delivery of the quick passing game.”
Jantz also, Rhoads said, shows better touch when appropriate — using extra “zing” only on an as-needed basis.
“He’s ready,” Rhoads said.
So are his receivers.
Rhoads said six to eight could see significant snaps in Saturday’s game, including sure-handed Josh Lenz and top vertical threat Aaron Horne, who is fully healthy after breaking his collarbone in spring ball.
“The play (Horne) made last year against Iowa (a season-best 57-yard catch), that’s the kind of play that we want to see game-by-game as the year goes along,” Rhoads said.
A deep stable of rushers also can alleviate pressure from Jantz as he balances risk with reward in the passing game.
There are three sources of lightning — James White, Shontrelle Johnson and DeVondrick Nealy — to complement Jeffy Woody’s thunder.
“We’re going to be a big-play offense, we’re going to have a consistent offense,” Woody said. “We’re not going to be looking to get down and kick field goals. We’re going for touchdowns. We’re going for the throat every chance we get.”
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