Jeremiah Cooper’s ball-hawking skills will be needed against Memphis in the Liberty Bowl

Jeremiah Cooper at bowl game practice in Memphis. Photo Courtesy of Iowa State Football/Jeff Spaur.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The fifth play of this season will forever be etched in Iowa State safety Jeremiah Cooper’s memory.

 Northern Iowa quarterback Theo Day floated a pass downfield. Cooper rose up and intercepted it — returning it 58 yards for the Cyclones’ first touchdown of the season.

 “I remember hearing the crowd,” said Cooper, who hopes to close the season the way he started it when ISU (7-5) matches up with Memphis (9-3) at 2:30 p.m. Friday in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. “That’s one of the best moments of my life. I remember everything that went on during that play.”

 Cooper’s early pick set the tone for a Cyclone defense that’s plucked 16 opponents’ passes from the air, which is tied for the eighth-most nationally. And a timely interception or two against prolific Tiger quarterback Seth Henigan could set the stage for ISU’s fourth eight-win season under head coach Matt Campbell and sixth bowl triumph in program history. Cooper is tied for fifth nationally with five picks and he also forced a fumble this season. 

 “(Cooper) got the season started off right,” said fellow safety Beau Freyler, who boasts three interceptions this season. “I think it has been a domino effect in terms of getting those turnovers that are critical to our success, so he’s done a really good job of that, providing those big plays for the defense and the team.”

 Henigan’s been picked off nine times this season, but just twice in the past six games. He runs a Memphis offense that ranks 14th among FBS teams in terms of passing yards per game (301.7).

 “He creates issues because he’s calling the game a little bit from the field, it looks like,” said ISU defensive coordinator Jon Heacock, who fielded a top-three Big 12 scoring defense for the seventh season in a row. “Anytime guys are talented and they can do that, the combination of those two things creates problems for you on defense.”

 Cooper’s posed myriad problems for the Cyclones’ foes and will have to heighten his ball-hawking abilities Friday because senior cornerback T.J. Tampa will sit out to avoid getting injured before the NFL Draft.

 “I love it,” Cooper said of facing the Tigers’ potent passing attack. “Us defensive players, we love it. The whole team loves it. All odds against us. That’s how it’s been all year, so we’ve just got to go out strong one more time.”

 ISU overcame a tumultuous offseason that included several staff changes. The Cyclones also lost several key players because of the state’s probe into sports gambling. And they were already coming off their first losing season since 2016 and needed to lean on several unproven freshmen and sophomores in key roles.

 “You think about all the things — the new staff members that came on board, there was a lot of change, and all of a sudden it ended up on a lot of young people’s shoulders,” Heacock said before listing a litany of ISU’s veteran leaders. “And you really had to rely on the Gerry Vaughns (a senior linebacker), and there weren’t very many of them. Gerry Vaughn and the Jaylin Noels and the Beau Freylers, and Darien Porter and T.J., and guys on the O-line (such as) Jarrod Hufford — all of a sudden it was just on a handful of guys (who knew), ‘Man, we have to lead.’ And I’ve said this before and you guys have heard me say this: the most incredible thing to me is not only did that group lead, but the other group listened. Leadership’s great, but somebody better damn listen to you. Our guys listened.”

 They also uplifted and fed off each other, both behind the scenes and on the field as Cooper’s early interception begat many more.

 “Once I got that interception, I wouldn’t say it was like we were trying to compete for them, but I feel like, ‘Oh, Beau got an interception, Beau got another interception, I’ve gotta go get one,” Cooper said. “And then Malik (Verdon) got one and T.J. was getting them and, man, it just helps the whole team out, trying to get those turnovers.”