Iowa State running back Shontrelle Johnson’s ready to hit the seam.
And the fact one of those violent, but carefree runs against Texas last season — coupled with a hard, but clean hit — led to a severe neck injury that nearly ended his career isn’t weighing heavily on his mind.
“I really don’t think about it,” said Johnson, whose team faces the BCS No. 17 Longhorns in Saturday’s 11 a.m. ABC-televised Big 12 game at Austin. “It’s a new year. The injury’s over and I kind of look past it. I haven’t really thought about it since I’ve started back playing, to be honest.”
Other less personal Texas-based thoughts spring to the fore of the Cyclones’ minds:
*A win would make ISU (5-4, 2-4) bowl eligible for the third time in Coach Paul Rhoads’ four seasons.
The Longhorns (7-2, 4-2) are double-digit favorites and stampeding in on a three-game win streak.
“A group of the best players in the country,” said Rhoads, whose team scored a 28-21 upset two years ago in Austin. “Everybody in the country knows what fertile recruiting ground the state of Texas is and they’re getting their choice.”
*The Cyclones have lost three of four games since surmounting the odds by winning convincingly, 37-23, over then-No. 15 Texas Christian at Fort Worth.
ISU’s offensive game plan against the Horned Frogs included taking early deep shots, which reaped rich rewards.
Josh Lenz scored on 51- and 74-yard passes from then-starting quarterback Jared Barnett in the first quarter, opening up the running game for 152 yards — its second-highest effort in conference play.
Does that pass-to-set-up-the-run approach fit well this week?
Maybe, Rhoads said.
“And in other games we’ve given ourself an opportunity to do that,” he said. “But it’s accuracy and it’s catching; success that goes along with it like saw down in Fort Worth.”
*The defense must improve its ability to get off the field on third downs. A season ago, ISU rose to third in the Big 12 in that category, limiting opponents to a 36.5 percent conversion rate. The Cyclones stand eighth now, allowing 39.6 percent of third down plays to lead to a new series — and 47.9 percent in conference play.
“We’ve just got to get after the quarterback when we have the opportunity,” nose tackle Jake McDonough said. “That was key for us in most of our victories — we got pressure when we needed to. And we need to cause more turnovers. And we need to stop the run initially, get them into downs where we know they’re going to throw so we can get the right personnel in.”
Texas has addressed its needs by making third downs manageable.
The Longhorns rank fifth nationally, making good on 52.4 percent of plays in those drive-extending situations.
“They’re getting in a lot of third and shorts and third and mediums,” ISU defensive coordinator Wally Burnham said. “This year, they’re running the ball. They’re not having to depend on the pass to get them another first down.”
That’s the Cyclones’ key to third down success, too, but it’s been difficult to achieve.
Emerging playmakers on the edge such as Jarvis West (four touchdowns last two games) and Quenton Bundrage (11 catches past three weeks) help.
“They’re finally getting to blossom,” said Johnson, who rushed for 120 yards in the season-opening win over Tulsa — the only time an ISU back has eclipsed the 100 mark this year. “It does our offense good.”
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