Epenesa, Iowa defense takes control of Rutgers in punishing second quarter

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It was a case of bad timing for the Rutgers football team Saturday: Making their first appearance in Kinnick Stadium while A.J. Epenesa was suited up for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Epenesa was credited with one sack, caused one pass to be intercepted and rustled up four quarterback hurries as the No. 19 Hawkeyes steamrolled to a 30-0 victory that may cause some damage to the Scarlet Knights’ psyche.

Certainly, Rutgers quarterback McLane Carter won’t forget his encounters with Epenesa. The fifth-year senior was rattled into a 5-of-15 passing performance for 22 yards before leaving at halftime with an unspecified injury.

That’s what Epenesa can do, and he was at his dominant best during a second quarter in which the Scarlet Knights gained zero yards and appeared to lose their will to fight.

The Iowa defense could sense it was headed to a third shutout in its last seven Big Ten Conference games.

“That’s one of the best feelings is knowing if you see them break the huddle and not necessarily want to come out and play,” said middle linebacker Kristian Welch, who led Iowa with eight tackles. “That’s really our job as a defense is to make it sticky for them.”

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) celebrates after a sack during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Rutgers, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Carter completed 1-of-6 passes in the second quarter. He threw an interception to Iowa linebacker Djimon Colbert that Epenesa deflected.

“I was able to find a gap, get through, and hit his arm as he threw it. It lollipopped up and Djimon was able to catch it,” Epenesa said. “That’s what we’re trying to do as a defensive line — pressure the quarterback and get them to make mistakes.”

Epenesa sacked Carter once, barreling in so fast that the quarterback started falling before contact was even made. It looked like Epenesa tackled him with his feet as he leaped over the prone quarterback.

“You’re not supposed to jump, ever. I was able to bull rush, get underneath his pads a little bit, and open him up,” Epenesa said of his attempted blocker. “(Carter) pump-faked and I thought he was going to throw it. And I tried to stop him. He ended up keeping it and ducking down. I went over him a little bit. Jumping is ill-advised but we were still able to make the play and get off the field.”

Carter’s one second-quarter completion merely got Rutgers back to the line of scrimmage.

At halftime, Iowa led 20-0 and it felt as if there was no need to play the final 30 minutes.

Rutgers turned to Artur Sitkowski at quarterback in the second half. He fared no better, completing 4 of 11 throws for 19 yards and an interception to Hawkeye cornerback Michael Ojemudia.

“This game is not going to define our football team or season,” Rutgers coach Chris Ash gamely offered afterward.

But you have to wonder what effect this type of thrashing will have on a Scarlet Knights squad that won its opener last year only to drop its final 11 contests. This loss will sting. Iowa’s defense made sure of it.

Ojemudia said the Hawkeyes were focused on getting the shutout, and eventually stopped thinking merely about the current opponent, which was providing little resistance. He said defensive coordinator Phil Parker even instructed his players: “Compete against yourselves. We might be playing Rutgers right now, but we're setting up for the whole year, basically.”

If so, this could be another very special year for the Hawkeye defense. And there’s no secret who the ringleader is.

“A.J. Epenesa kind of set that tempo for us,” Iowa defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore said. “And I appreciate that. He got everybody going.”

Epenesa, facing frequent double-teams, was held to a lone tackle in Iowa’s 38-14 season-opening win over Miami (Ohio). On Saturday, the Hawkeyes unveiled a more intricate set of stunts designed to free him up.

It worked.

“I kind of have a target on my head,” Epenesa said. “You see players get double-teamed all the time and still have success. There’s ways to beat it.”

Epenesa, a junior who is a preseason all-American, said he wasn’t frustrated by his opening-night performance. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said there was no need to be.

“I did sense some unrealistic expectations last week after the game,” Ferentz said.

“He's not going to make every play and he shouldn't. He's a defensive end. But if he just does his job, when he does it well, it impacts things. A lot of times those are subtle things that don't necessarily show up. But just making a quarterback move around, making him uncomfortable, making him aware that you might be over there, that's a good thing.”

The Rutgers quarterbacks were on the move Saturday, most definitely aware Epenesa was on the other side.

And it clearly made them uncomfortable.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines to make sure you never miss a moment.