AMES, Iowa -- Iowa State is supposed to get only one breather this season, and it is scheduled for Saturday.
It's nothing but Big 12 tests for the Cyclones after this weekend.
Iowa State (2-0) hosts FCS school Western Illinois (2-0) in its final game before a bye week and the start of conference play. The Cyclones are seeking their second consecutive 3-0 start, winning as underdogs at home against Tulsa and on the road against rival Iowa.
"We just want to be 3-0. That's our focus. Never underestimate your opponent is like a cliché, but it's so true. We have to treat everything the same and prepare like they're going to give us their best game," Iowa State senior safety Durrell Givens said.
Givens might be right since Western Illinois hails from the same league, the Missouri Valley, as the Northern Iowa team that lost just 20-19 in Ames in the 2011 opener. But for once, the Cyclones have an opponent that most believe will struggle to hang with them.
Iowa State opened with an impressive 38-23 win over the Golden Hurricane on Sept. 1.
The Cyclones ran into a much tougher defense at Iowa last weekend.
Iowa State failed to score after halftime in Iowa City. But senior linebacker Jake Knott made the play of his career when he tipped and intercepted quarterback James Vandenberg's floater in Iowa State territory with 1:11 left, giving the Cyclones their second straight win over the Hawkeyes, 9-6.
Iowa State turned the ball over four times and gained just 101 yards rushing on 41 carries. Still, the resiliency showed by Knott and the defense likely bodes well for the rest of what figures to be a tough season.
The Cyclones start a full nine-game Big 12 schedule by hosting Texas Tech on Sept. 29.
"One of the things that I told them last week, let's not put a ceiling on what that is. Let's just figure it out and continue to improve," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said.
Western Illinois is 2-0 for the first time since 2003. But the Leathernecks have lost six straight road games and haven't beaten an FBS program since a 34-12 win over Eastern Michigan nine years ago.
Western Illinois leans on a pair of running backs, Nikko Watson and Ray Caulton, who've combined for 384 yards and three touchdowns in wins over Butler and Division II Indianapolis.
Senior quarterback Josh Hudson, now in his second season as the starter, has yet to throw a TD pass but has completed 64.3 percent of his passes.
"He feels much more comfortable this year. That's a big part of it, as far as being our quarterback, being the offensive leader on our team," Western Illinois coach Mark Hendrickson said.
For Iowa State, a 3-0 start is a bigger deal than it is at a lot of other schools.
Getting halfway to a bowl bid can allow the Cyclones to breathe somewhat easier as they navigate yet another brutal league slate.
The visit from Texas Tech at the end of the month is followed by games against No. 15 TCU and No. 16 Kansas State. Iowa State opens November with Oklahoma and Texas and closes it with West Virginia.
Such a difficult schedule means that the Cyclones simply can't afford to let any of their winnable games slip away from them.
"You've just got to stay hungry. You can't take your foot off the gas. You've got to keep going and that's what we plan on doing," Knott said.