IOWA CITY, Ia. — In three words, Matt Nelson described what he sees from A.J. Epenesa in practice.
“He’s a freak,” the Iowa fifth-year senior defensive tackle said of his true-sophomore linemate. “He does some incredible things when he gets going like that.”
Nelson told stories about how Epenesa, the first five-star recruit in the program in more than a decade, outruns skill-position players in practice.
Saturday, Epenesa’s dominance was on display for everyone to see. Five tackles. Two sacks. A forced fumble for the second straight game.
“Nobody has had more hype, I think, in the last 19-plus years than A.J. coming in here,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz correctly pointed out afterward. “And I get that. He's a really good player, good prospect, great kid. But last year he was learning how to play, too. … He's thinking about six things at once, and you can't do that.”
Now, things are clearing up. Epenesa’s mind isn’t racing as much anymore. And he’s showing how much power can be unleashed in his 6-foot-5, 277-pound frame.
“It’s easy on the mind to know you can pin your ears back and go, and get after it,” said Epenesa, who has three sacks for the year already despite playing in a backup role. “That’s all you have to do, contain and get after quarterback. Get the ball out. Change a possession.
“Whenever you can just rev the engine up and just go, it’s freeing.”
The dominance Epenesa showed Saturday gives a lot of hope for what he and the Iowa defense can do this season.
"Where I was standing today was a guy playing fast," Ferentz said. "He had some purpose, and wasn't overthinking this stuff."
In their first career starts, Jack Hockaday and Djimon Colbert were impressive.
Hockaday was in at middle linebacker after last week’s benching of Amani Jones; Colbert was in at weak-side linebacker with Kristian Welch missing practice time with an undisclosed injury.
Both guys were up to the task Saturday, perhaps being told how much their positions were being questioned against Iowa State star running back David Montgomery (17 carries, 44 yards).
Colbert, a converted safety, was especially impressive. He admitted after the game that when he was switched to linebacker, "I wasn’t really too excited about it.”
But Jones and Aaron Mends and others welcomed him to the linebackers room, and he felt at home. Saturday, the moment wasn’t too big for the redshirt freshman. He was closing fast on Montgomery every time he got the ball.
A week ago, he got more fourth-quarter snaps once Welch went out with an injury. He felt jitters then. Not Saturday.
“Having that whole week to prepare with the 1s, getting with those D-linemen, getting with Amani Hooker to prepare with the back," Colbert said. "… Those (reps) with the 1s really helped me out.”
Can we get a computer chip in the football to help with accurate spots?
Only kidding, I guess, but there has to be a better way to get accurate ball spots than whatever methods were used by the Big 12 Conference crew that officiated Saturday's game.
All game long, spots were consistently a yard (sometimes more) off the mark.
The officials upstairs did get it right on a crucial replay review in the fourth quarter, when T.J. Hockenson was initially ruled a yard short of the first-down line to gain.
We can safely say that Iowa is not yet a first-half (or total) offensive juggernaut.
In four quarters of first-half football through two Saturdays, Iowa has zero touchdowns.
The Hawkeyes averaged 2.6 yards per play against Iowa State in the first 30 minutes; they stumbled to just a 4.0 average last week in the opening half against Northern Illinois.
The first-quarter stats are even uglier: 30 plays, 82 yards, zero points through two weeks. That will get better, but it needs to get markedly better.
"We're sporadic. We're hit or miss right now," Ferentz said. "We don't have a rhythm."
A lot of Saturday's struggles had to do with Iowa State’s fundamentally sound defense.
A lot, too, had to do with Stanley.
Iowa’s junior quarterback started the game by getting flagged for delay of game — a five-yard penalty that was especially costly as Toren Young ran for 7 and 4 yards on Iowa’s first two plays.
Later, Stanley ran a read-option straight ahead for 1 yard to force a third-and-9 after a shanked punt gave Iowa possession at the Iowa State 21. Iowa got no points on that drive.
And then on an important third-and-4 from Iowa State’s 12, Stanley confronted a loaded box with nine defenders — something Iowa faced a lot in the first half. Yet Stanley was unwilling to check out of a run play, and he handed off to Young for a dead-from-the-start running play that lost 1 yard.
Iowa settled for a field goal and a 3-3 halftime tie.
Later in the fourth quarter, he threw low and incomplete to Nick Easley on what looked like a sure third-down conversion.
The Hawkeyes had one good drive Saturday. One. They expect more from their quarterback, and he’ll need to get it going as Big Ten Conference play nears.
"Everybody's really just trying to encourage everybody," said Stanley, who had his best quarter in the fourth quarter for the second straight year in the Cy-Hawk game, "and just stay the course."
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Not having Ivory Kelly-Martin proved to be a big adjustment.
The Hawkeyes’ No. 1 running back was out with a left-ankle injury Saturday. He was billed by Brian Ferentz as the fastest back and also gives Iowa the most flexibility in play-calling with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
"Ivory couldn't go yesterday, so we'll see what he looks like this week (for Northern Iowa)," Kirk Ferentz said. "But we're hoping sooner than later.
For most of the game, Iowa's offense couldn't find any rhythm with Young and Sargent composing the backfield. The tandem's longest run of the day was 11 yards (twice by Young, once by Sargent).
Speaking of injuries ... Iowa's best big-play receiving threat got hurt.
Ihmir Smith-Marsette, the self-proclaimed fastest player on the team, caught a 45-yard pass from Stanley in the third quarter but later was ruled out for the game with a shoulder injury. In an offense that lacks explosion as it is, that's not good. But Kirk Ferentz did say X-rays on the shoulder were negative.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.