WORK IN PROGRESS: CB Anthony Johnson’s growth mirrors first-place ISU’s this season

Sep 26, 2020; Fort Worth, Texas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones linebacker Mike Rose (23) and defensive back Anthony Johnson Jr. (26) celebrate an interception in the fourth quarter against the TCU Horned Frogs at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Tylan Wallace pushed.

Anthony Johnson shoved back.

The Oklahoma State star receiver and the Iowa State cornerback jawed, clawed and crawled into each other’s heads earlier this season in an entertaining one-on-one matchup that essentially ended in a personal draw.

And that’s saying something — especially for Johnson, whose growth at corner has mirrored his team’s patchwork path to progress during this unique 2020 season.

 “I’ve just been getting better each year,” said Johnson, who hopes to help the No. 17 Cyclones clamp down on Kansas State in Saturday’s 3 p.m. Big 12 clash at Jack Trice Stadium. “The game’s slowing down year by year and I’m actually having fun. Like, playing free.”

 Johnson’s always had the requisite swagger at his position to play at a high level. It’s just that now — as a junior — he’s cultivating that rare quality of consistency.

 Case in point, the matchup with Wallace: Johnson held the Cowboys’ big-play threat to season lows in catches (5) and yards (76) and, crucially, kept him out of the end zone.

 But that bravura performance shouldn’t be singled out, ISU head coach Matt Campbell said — and not just because his team ultimately lost the game, 24-21.

“Yeah, I just think that (it’s) the entirety (of the season),” Campbell said of Johnson’s 2020 body of work. “And corner’s a funny position sometimes to evaluate because I think sometimes you can go an entire game and maybe the ball doesn’t get thrown your way. So it’s some of the other things and especially with what we do defensively, it’s the detail of being where you’re supposed to be. Where are your eyes at? How consistently are you tackling? How well are you breaking on the ball? 

“There’s so much that goes into that position. It’s almost like grading the offensive line. You assume things, but you really don’t know. And I think Anthony, those are the areas where it’s been really fun to watch his consistency. Obviously, in this conference, you’re going to get tested because there (are) great receivers. You get to compete against those guys, week in and week out. There were some really good ones over in the last pod and there’s going to be some great ones in this pod, so those challenges continue to await him, but I think it’s all those other areas equal to rising up in the one-on-one situations that’s been really fun to watch (with) Anthony.”

 Campbell said Johnson played well, but with less consistency in the first pod of games this season. He then played better in the second pod — and appears poised to play his best as the season winds toward a possible shot at a Big 12 championship.

 That’s precisely the formula his first-place Cyclones (5-2, 5-1) need to follow to go from good to great in terms of the win-loss ledger. The always-sound Wildcats (4-3, 4-2) will furnish ISU with the ultimate test of that gambit on Saturday and Johnson and his teammates are well aware of that.

 His top concern is stymieing freshman quarterback Will Howard and explosive tailback Deuce Vaughn — both of whom, he said, pose myriad problems. 

 Howard totaled a balanced 268 yards rushing and passing and accounted for two touchdowns in K-State’s 20-18 loss to Oklahoma State two weeks ago. Vaughn’s struggled his last two outings but blends surprising top-line speed with savvy and quickness as a big-play threat out of the backfield.

 “They’re young but they make plays,” Johnson said. “Both of them, I think, are playmakers, especially (Vaughn). He can go the distance at any moment. They’re a disciplined football team. Physical.”

 That’s what Johnson and the Cyclones aim to be and so far this season — minus a disturbing array of special teams gaffes — they have been.

 Finding a way to win despite playing far from perfect games has catapulted ISU to the top of the standings.

 Limiting those confounding mistakes will allow them to stay there.

 That’s true in one-on-one situations and even more true when it comes to collective work in each phase of the game.

 Swagger’s suggested, but greater precision is required.

 November’s results will determine whether the Cyclones remain in “contender” status, or slip into “pretender” mode. And it’s consistency, not one flashy performance, that will make that distinction clear.

 “Obviously you want to be playing meaningful football in November and in a positive way, we’ve been able to do that in this program over the last couple of years,” Campbell said. “Now, how do you maximize those opportunities? That’s the next stage of this team and this program. It’s been fascinating and we’ve learned a lot along the way.”

 What else have they learned? Talk is talk. Disciplined actions win the day, whether in practice or under Saturday’s spotlight.

“Just going back and relying on our fundamentals,” Johnson said of his team’s efforts to finish strong this season. “I feel like that’s something we lacked in the past years. That’s something that’s really gonna help us win these November games.”