Oct 28, 2023; Waco, Texas, USA; Baylor Bears wide receiver Monaray Baldwin (80) makes a catch against Iowa State Cyclones defensive back Jeremiah Cooper (4) during the first half at McLane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Jeremiah Cooper didn’t fret. He didn’t stew. Instead, Iowa State’s standout sophomore safety took sitting out two games this season because of injury as an opportunity to improve, teach, and return to the field better than before.
“I’ve still got to prepare the same because I’m preparing for my teammates,” said Cooper, who now prepares for Saturday’s 7 p.m. regular-season finale between the Cyclones (6-5, 5-3) and No. 19 Kansas State (8-3, 6-2) in Manhattan, Kan. “Everybody sees differently on the football field, so what I’m seeing I correlate that to (helping backups Jamison Patton and Blake Thompson) when they’re out there so I can help them.”
Cooper — who is tied for second nationally in interceptions with five — may be selfless with his team, but he’s greedy on the football field. Saturday against No. 7 Texas, he tracked down star Longhorns receiver Xavier Worthy inside the Cyclones’ 10-yard line and forced a fumble. Sophomore linebacker Will McLaughlin recovered it to thwart a nearly six-minute drive and even though Texas eventually won, 26-16, Cooper made impact plays from start to finish.
“It was certainly huge for us to get Coop back,” said ISU head coach Matt Campbell, whose team has won three consecutive conference road games for the first time since 1978. “I feel like with Coop back and the experience (Patton got) the week before, I thought it gave us a great one-two punch on the field.”
The Cyclones will need to strike the Wildcats in multiple ways on both sides of the ball and it’s unclear whether one of Cooper’s fellow safeties, Malik Verdon, will be able to play on Saturday. He got banged up in the Texas game, but Campbell’s optimistic he’ll be good to go in Manhattan.
“The great thing for him is it’s not a strain,” Campbell said of Verdon, who notched a career-high 10 tackles against the Longhorns. “It’s a forearm deal. We’ll kind of just see where we’re at by the time we get to the game, but a least there’s a real chance that he’ll be available for us.”
Cooper, Verdon and fellow safety Beau Freyler give ISU one of the best safety groups in the country. They’ve combined for 10 of the Cyclones’ 15 interceptions this season — a voluminous total that’s tied for fourth-best nationally.
“Those guys are ball hawks and they know where to be on the field,” ISU wide receiver Jaylin Noel said. “Right time, right place, so those guys bringing that energy, knowing that there’s the potential to get a takeaway at any time, it gives the whole team energy. I feel like each game they’ve gotten better and made plays.”
That trend must continue against Kansas State in a second straight nationally televised game on FOX whether Verdon can play or not. The Wildcats lead the country in terms of turning red zone opportunities into touchdowns (81.5 percent), so it’s likely a takeaway or two will be required if the Cyclones hope to record consecutive wins at Bill Snyder Family Stadium for the first time since winning three straight there in the 1980s.
“I’m just happy to see us growing every single game,” Cooper said. “Developing every single game. From game one to game 12 now, it’s just a tremendous amount of growth that we’ve had. From freshmen, sophomores, juniors seniors — I just love to see it.”