Jeremiah Cooper’s ball-hawking skills set the tone in ISU’s 30-7 season-opening win over UNI


Iowa State Cyclones’ defensive back Jeremiah Cooper (4)runs with the ball for a touchdown after an interception during the first quarter in the season-opening game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY

AMESJeremiah Cooper merely executed his read. The sophomore Iowa State safety saw Northern Iowa quarterback Theo Day lock onto his target, then pounced.

The result: an interception returned for a 58-yard touchdown, which successfully set the Cyclones’ winning tone early in a 30-9 triumph over the Panthers on a sultry Saturday afternoon at Jack Trice Stadium.

 “The whole momentum shifted,” said Cooper, who added a second interception late in the first half that set up senior transfer Chase Contreraz’s 56-yard field goal. “I just made a play. I made a play for the team.”

 Cooper’s interceptions — including the pick-six which came after UNI had crossed midfield on the game’s opening drive — augmented an efficient ISU offense that scored three touchdowns despite running just 45 plays and gaining 250 yards.

 “I think the one thing that was really fun today — and I probably haven’t seen in a long time here — is our ability to stack our responses,” said Campbell, whose team notched its fourth straight win against the Panthers. “I thought that (first interception) really set the tone, especially from our standpoint of things we’ve talked about. Man, the game’s a game of momentum. You’ve got to continue to respond. You’ve got to play the next play and I thought that was awesome.”

 Contreraz’s last-second field goal that gave the Cyclones a convincing 23-0 halftime lead left the senior transfer from Missouri Valley awestruck.

 The offense took the field after Cooper’s second pick set ISU up at the UNI 38-yard line, but Campbell called timeout and put Contreraz on the spot. He calmly booted the football through the uprights from 56 yards away — turning his first field goal as a Cyclone into the fifth-longest in program history.

 “It’s unreal,” the former Nebraska backup kicker said. “I don’t have any words for it. Just gotta be ready for the moment and it’s crazy that that was my first kick.”

 Redshirt freshman quarterback Rocco Becht turned his first snaps as a starter into a steady 10-for-13 passing performance that included a pair of touchdowns to tight ends Tyler Moore and Ben Brahmer. He didn’t sustain a sack and also didn’t throw an interception.

 “It was surreal walking out there for pregame warmups,” Becht said. “I wasn’t trying to pay attention to them announcing my name on the board, but I heard it so that was pretty cool the hear. I’m just gonna take it day by day and play by play and see where this season goes.”

 From a Panther perspective, that trajectory will likely trend upward. UNI actually outgained ISU by 29 yards, but much of that production came in the second half after the Cyclones had built a 30-0 lead on the opening drive of the third quarter.

 Panther quarterback Theo Day went 17-for-35 for 173 yards, but also threw the aforementioned two interceptions and endured five sacks as his receivers struggled to break free from ISU’s seasoned and skilled secondary.

 “I thought we were lethargic on offense the whole first half,” UNI’s veteran head coach Mark Farley said. “I wasn’t pleased with (it) even though you could say at times we were moving the ball or whatever, but not like we should be able to. Credit them. Maybe they were better than I thought they were.”

  Even the Cyclones’ often-embattled special teams units conjured up a slew of productive plays. Jaylin Noel’s 39-yard punt return set up ISU’s first offensive touchdown — a one-yard sneak by Becht on 4th and 1 late in the first quarter.

 ISU punter Tyler Perkins averaged 53.6 yards per attempt and three of the Cyclones’ four kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.

 “I think the credit goes to the specialists and (continuing) to develop a plan to let those guys have success,” Campbell said. “So, yeah, that part’s good.”

 But nothing beats an interception for a touchdown on the game’s opening drive — especially in the team’s first pick-six since former linebacker and current Los Angeles Ram Jake Hummel accomplished the feat in a 2021 win over West Virginia.

 “I probably was smiling,” Cooper said of his momentous first career interception. “This is big for me.”