Iowa State defensive back Anthony Johnson, Jr., (1) intercepts a pass intended for West VirginiaÕs Reese Smith (15) in the second quarter during a NCAA football game at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022.
AMES — Anthony Johnson never hesitated.
The senior from St. Petersburg rarely does, especially on the football field, but he’s calculated about what he says. He’s careful to say the right things without saying too much at the same time.
This time, there was never a pause after Iowa State’s 31-14 win over West Virginia to snap the program’s five-game losing streak and notch its first Big 12 win of the season.
Is this the best secondary he’s been part of at Iowa State?
“I would say we are,” Johnson said. “But, I would say there are still things we need to improve, and we’ll get it figured out.”
Spoken like a true leader.
There’s no doubt that’s what Johnson is for an Iowa State defensive backfield that has been terrorizing opponents this entire season.
West Virginia quarterback J.T. Daniels will be seeing Johnson, TJ Tampa, Myles Purchase, Beau Freyler and the host of talented youngsters that comprise the Big 12’s best pass defense in his nightmares.
The Mountaineer starting signal-caller tallied 8-of-22 passing for 81 yards, one touchdown and one interception against that group. West Virginia eclipsed the century mark through the air only as a product of a solid drive late in the game when Iowa State had already clinched victory.
After allowing a touchdown right before halftime, West Virgina completed only two of their next eight passes for 17 yards and didn’t record a first down until there were roughly three minutes left in the game.
West Virginia had four drives prior to their last touchdown drive when the game was out of reach. The Mountaineers posted four three and outs on those drives.
Add the Mountaineers to the list of Big 12 teams clamped up by the league’s best secondary.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had all the pieces playing at a consistent level,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said. “Man, you go back to last year, and TJ and Myles were probably playing like you’ve seen some young guys on offense play this year. There’s flashes of greatness then it’s… ahhh… still growing. Man, what those two have become, has been phenomenal. They care. It’s important. You look at Beau and the ringleader of the whole thing is Anthony.”
It always comes back to Anthony, and we’re going to do just that here momentarily.
Let’s talk about those first two guys Campbell mentioned, though.
It would have been hard to imagine Iowa State having one corner who could equal the coverage ability Johnson put on display on the edge over the last four seasons before moving to safety this year.
The Cyclones have two of them.
Very rarely do Tampa or Purchase ever allow an uncontested catch. They’ve been in the hip pockets of receivers across the league week after week, making life difficult on some of the nation’s best pass catchers.
Sure, there have been hiccups, but never under Campbell has Iowa State been this balanced on the edge defensively on both sides of the football field.
“TJ Tampa is playing like I expected him to play a little minute ago,” Johnson said. “TJ’s that dude. Since he stepped over to the dark side (the defense), I’m like, man, this guy has a chance to be really special. He’s all in and I’m so excited because he’s just going to continue to skyrocket… Myles is continuing to grow and the sky is the limit for Myles, as well. He’s going to have one of those games where he comes out and people are going to be like, ‘Oh.’ Same result as TJ.”
Tampa is going to play football for a very, very long time and make a lot of money doing it. Purchase could have a professional future, too, as long as size doesn’t prevent him from getting a shot.
Having players of that caliber has allowed an Iowa State program that already set a sky-high standard for defense to elevate that standard to another level.
The Cyclones entered Saturday leading the Big 12 in total defense, passing defense, rushing defense and scoring defense. The performance against West Virginia only lowered all of those averages.
We’ve long talked on Football (And Random Things) about “The Professor’s Gambit” and how teams have been able to find some success against Iowa State early in games over the last couple of seasons.
We all know what comes after that early success, though.
“Man, I give all the credit to the coaches and, obviously, the players as well. We come off the sideline, we communicate what we’re seeing, (the coaches) communicate what they’re seeing. Dude, you give us a quarter in where we’re able to hang with you for a quarter, it’s over,” Johnson said. “Now, we’re making adjustments and we catch on pretty quick to what you’re doing so we’re able to have success and play with what you’re giving us.”
The best part for Iowa State is this secondary is only laying a foundation for what is to come. Tampa is a true junior. Purchase is a true sophomore just like Freyler, who co-led Iowa State with five tackles against West Virginia.
There’s also true freshman Jeremiah Cooper, who certainly isn’t playing like a true freshman and tallied three tackles against WVU.
This group is only going to keep getting better.
And, again, it always comes back to No. 1.
“How’s (Johnson’s) worked to serve that group, it’s been unbelievable,” Campbell said. “For us, when you have a bellcow in Anthony then you have all these talented young guys that have tried to live up to his standard of excellence in how you prepare, how you practice, how you come to work every day and they’re really talented, man, elite things can happen.”
Johnson’s elite ability was on display again on Saturday when he posted two tackles and intercepted a pass. He nearly scored his first career touchdown, too, but his scoop and score was overturned after a review.
A fact to which he responded…
“Still on my highlight tape.”
It sure is, Ant, and there are a lot of highlight plays to come that will be a product of the leadership of that young man, who played as a true freshman for a really good Iowa State defense and has been part of numerous other good defenses in the time since.
He didn’t even need to hesitate when asked if this was the best group he’d been part of since he arrived in Ames five years ago.
His coach didn’t need to hesitate when giving credit either.
“The tribute is to him and the tribute is to them to want to continue to raise their level to play elite football in our secondary,” Campbell said. “We’re doing it.”
They sure are, Coach.
And Campbell’s peers are taking notice.
“They have been good on defense for a while,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said. “They may have their best unit this year.”
You won’t find many people around the Iowa State program who disagree. This unit is scary good and perhaps has been taken for granted by some while Iowa State’s offense shuffled through the program’s 0-5 start to Big 12 play.
Like I said before, it always comes back to No. 1 — and that’s how we’ll close this thing out.
“I would say this defense at times has shown the ability to be better than before,” Johnson said. “I do think that we have a lot more talent than we’ve had previously, but that’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s how the coaches recruit. I think we have a chance to be as good as we want to be.”
Spoken like a true leader — and that’s why we’re going to remember this No. 1 around here for a long time.