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Theo’s not so great Day: Cyclone defense cages Panthers

Tyler Coe
Jeremiah Cooper celebrates a pick-6 to get the Cyclones on the board against UNI at Jack Trice Stadium on Sep. 2, 2023.

AMES — Theo Day’s long outing started from the first snap.

As Day got the ball from his center, Iowa State’s Domonique Orange burst through the line and barreled toward Day. Although Day got the ball off, that did not stop Orange from running through Day, hitting him so hard his helmet rolled on the ground five yards behind him.

From that point on, it was clear that Iowa State was playing with speed and violence. 

Just plays later, Day was met with another violent force on Iowa State’s defense. However, it was not the defensive line this time but the defensive backs.

“They make life easier for [the defensive linemen],” Tyler Onyedim said. “They make life easier for us, and we make their life easier as well. So it’s a good one-two combo.”

As Day found an open man for a short throw, Iowa State’s Jeremiah Cooper quickly closed the gap to snatch the ball out of the air and run to the end zone. The only thing between Cooper and a Cyclone touchdown was 58 yards of grass and fresh air.

Iowa State had the first points of the game thanks to the defense. Day had his first interception of the game as well.

“I thought that play set the tone,” Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell said.

The Iowa State defense showed the same speed and violence on the next drive as they stuffed Northern Iowa running back Tye Edwards one yard behind the line of scrimmage on what seemed to be an easy third-and-short play. Another huge stop came from the Iowa State defense.

“I feel like what went right for us was just getting after it,” Onyedim said. “Getting where the ball was, everywhere.”

After one quarter of play, the Cyclones led 14-0. The Iowa State defense allowed less than 100 total yards.

The Cyclones started the second quarter the same as the first, by putting Day on his butt. Onyedim stuffed the line one play earlier before breaking through the line and putting a hit on Day as he was firing the ball.

“If TO (Tyler Onyedim) working, then he working for us,” Cooper said. “He gonna rush the QB, he gonna throw something up, that’s an opportunity for us to make a play.”

Day had no time in the pocket to look for options in the air. Along with that, wherever Day wanted the ball to go, a Cyclone defender was there waiting. 

The same thing was true in the run game. Although the Panther running backs bit off big chunks of the field on first- and second-down plays, Iowa State’s defense came up big on every third down to stuff runs.

The first sack of the day, and season, came from Caleb Bacon as he tore around the outside to swallow up Day in the second quarter. Bacon also ended the game with another sack, putting his season total up to two.

“Caleb, yeah, my guy. He’s a dog,” Onyedim said. “Y’all saw it today, he’s a dog. He went crazy. Two sacks. He always does good in practice, so I knew it was gonna happen in game.”

With less than 10 seconds in the half, Day put up a throw near midfield to get his offense moving one last time in hopes to get any points on the board. Cooper jumped on the ball again and came up with his second interception of the day, the first Cyclone to get two picks in a game since 2018.

That interception also set Iowa State up for a 56-yard field goal, which Chase Contreraz nailed, to put the Cyclones up 23-0.

Cooper finished the game with two interceptions for a combined 88 total yards. Ten of Iowa State’s points came from the hands of Cooper.

“Any turnover on defense is gonna be big for the offense; big for the team,” Cooper said. “I think it was huge, especially since we got points out of both of them.”

UNI needed to get something working on offense in the second half, and Day had to be the guy to do it.

With UNI charging down the field in the third, the Cyclones needed a stop in the red zone to keep the Panthers off the board. Team captain, and former walk-on, Ben Nikkel was the man to answer the call.

Day found his man in the back of the end zone, but Nikkel was there to ruin his day. Nikkel got a hand on the ball to force a pass breakup. 

Just one play later, Day went to the other side of the end zone. Again, Nikkel was there. Nikkel’s two pass breakups helped Iowa State keep the ball out of the end zone and give the Panthers just three points.

“When we had the opportunity to make plays, we made them,” Campbell said.

Big plays were coming from everyone on defense, not just the starters.

By the end of the third quarter, the hole that UNI was in became too large to climb out. Iowa State’s starters on defense got a chance to get some rest as the first game was in the bag.

The Cyclones secured their first win of the season by taking down the Panthers 30-9. Iowa State finished with five sacks, nine tackles for a loss, two interceptions and seven pass breakups. An all-around dominating performance from the defense.

Although the outing was impressive across the board for the defense, they did not look at it as anything special. The production was expected, because they knew how good their defense could be.

“Just play our game,” Cooper said. “We just went out there and played Iowa State defense.”

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