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Jeremiah Cooper’s early pick-six sets the defensive tone in Iowa State's 30-9 win over Northern Iowa

AMES, Iowa (AP) — Jeremiah Cooper's two first-half interceptions set the tone for Iowa State's 30-9 win over Northern Iowa on Saturday, easing the pressure on a Cyclones offense rocked by suspensions and departures.

Cooper returned his first career interception 58 yards for a touchdown on the fifth play from scrimmage. His second pick set up Chase Contreraz's 56-yard field goal just before halftime, giving Iowa State a 23-0 cushion.

“It's unexplainable,” Cooper said. “My first college interceptions, so this is something I can't even describe. I'm just forever grateful for it.”

The Cyclones were missing several projected starters due to a state gambling investigation, including quarterback Hunter Dekkers, who threw for 3,044 yards and 19 touchdowns last year.

Rocco Becht handled most of the quarterback duties Saturday, completing 10 of 13 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns.

“I'm not going to lie. I had some butterflies coming into the stadium,” Becht said. “But this team had my back and I had their back. They put their trust in me to come out here and play today.”

Special teams also provided an early lift. Tyler Perkins' 70-yard punt pinned UNI at the 2-yard line and a 39-yard punt return by Jaylin Noel set up the Cyclones' second touchdown.

“The myth is that we have not been good on special teams, which is a farce,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said. “When we've had great specialists, we've been really good. We're a lot better with our wisdom and our age.”

Cooper was the first Iowa State player to have two interceptions in a game since 2018.

Northern Iowa quarterback Theo Day finished 16 of 34 for 164 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

The Cyclones secondary finished with seven pass breakups.

“That was a big emphasis,” Cooper said. “We knew their QB was good. We knew he was going to come and try to throw the ball. We've been working on that all week.”

Day threw just six interceptions last season while earning All-Missouri Valley Conference first-team honors.

“I just thought we played really good team football today,” Campbell said. “The way we have to play to win football games.”

Panthers coach Mark Farley characterized the game as “more of a scrum than a battle.”

“They did a nice job, but it was the interception for a touchdown coming out of the gate. ... The first couple plays went our way and then the interception for a touchdown took the wind out of that.”

TAKEAWAY

Iowa State's defense ranked 18th nationally last season in points allowed (20.2 per game) and the unit looked stout again Saturday. Northern Iowa crossed the 50-yard line just once in the first half, reaching the 44 before Cooper ended the threat with his pick-six. The Panthers gained just 85 yards in the first half, including 39 passing.

MISSING PLAYERS

The Cyclones, in addition to Dekkers, were without offensive lineman Jacob Remsburg, tight end DeShawn Hanika, running back Jirehl Brock and defensive lineman Isaiah Lee. Brock and Lee have left the program.

All five are among the Iowa State athletes who face criminal charges in connection with a state gambling investigation announced in May. They are accused of disguising their identities on mobile sports betting apps because they were NCAA athletes and under the legal betting age of 21 at the time the accounts were set up.

UP NEXT

Iowa State: hosts Iowa in the annual CyHawk Game next Saturday.

Northern Iowa: host Weber State next Saturday.

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll