AMES - For the first time this season, Iowa State true freshmen cornerbacks Leonard Johnson and Ter'ran Benton started in the same game Saturday.

Let that soak in for a second: Iowa State, a member of the most prolific passing conference in the nation - the Big 12 - is now starting two 18-year-olds at cornerback.

Perhaps nothing illlustrates Iowa State's rebuilding challenge quite like that fact.

Johnson and Benton endured a long afternoon Saturday as Iowa State's defense, as a whole, offered little resistance to a Nebraska passing game that produced 328 total yards.

The freshmen did combine for 11 tackles, however. Benton, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound Texan, led the Cyclones with two tackles for loss. Johnson, a 5-10, 179-pounder from Florida, recorded one fumble recovery and one pass breakup.

Iowa State takes little solace in such stats after a 35-7 loss to a rival. Yet, in a conference which is home to nine of the nation's top 15 performers in passing efficiency, Johnson and Benton's performances offer a glimmer of hope.

The Big 12, said coach Gene Chizik, "isn't giving (us) any breaks.

"We've got a lot of young people playing," he added. "The experience of playing is great. … (But) the experience of losing is not great."

TOWING THE LINE: Iowa State, which entered Saturday ranked just 74th nationally in rushing (131.8 yards per game), altered its starters along the offensive line, to mixed results.

First, sophomore center Alex Alvarez started for the third time in four games in place of incumbent Mike Knapp (appendectomy).

Also, guard Kelechi Osemele made his first Big 12 start. Osemele, a redshirt freshman from Houston, Texas, had played spot minutes in five earlier games this season.

While Alvarez and Osemele are less experienced than the men they replaced, the youngsters gave Iowa State added girth in the trenches. Alvarez tips the scales at 291 pounds, while Osemele, whom coaches spoke highly of from day one of the preseason ? sports a 6-foot-5, 330-pound frame.

Iowa State gained 105 yards on the ground Saturday, but that number was augmented by Alexander Robinson's 67-yard scoring romp.

Young or old, Chizik needs better production from both his earth-movers and the men they're blocking for.

"We had one run where we really broke out of the box," the coach lamented. A poor running game "affects our whole team, top to bottom."

QUICK-HITTERS: Since 1970, Nebraska has 378 wins, 24 more than any other program in the country. … Iowa State linebacker Cameron Bell made his first start of the season Saturday. The 6-foot-2, 237-pound sophomore ended with six total tackles, including five solo stops. … Thanks to Saturday's triumph, Nebraska hasn't had a four-game losing streak in consecutive seasons since 1960-61.

Contact Kelly Beaton at (319) 291-1456 or kelly.beaton@wcfcourier.com