Leistikow's DVR Monday: Tracking Epenesa's monster day and is Iowa's offense near a breakout?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central
The Iowa football team is riding a hot defense right now, which led to Saturday's 13-3 win against Iowa State.

By the time Iowa and Iowa State meet at Jack Trice Stadium on Sept. 14, 2019, it will have been 1,827 days since the Cyclones last beat the Hawkeyes in football.

Yes, Iowa is officially a winner against Iowa State for a fourth straight time. And the positives justifiably flowed about the defense, given the dominance shown in that 13-3 victory Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium.

In their 2-0 start, the Hawkeyes rank second in the nation in scoring defense (5.0 points per game), fifth in total defense (199.5 yards per game) and are tied for second in sacks (with nine).

Numbers worth celebrating.

But as anyone who watched Saturday’s game knows, the offense remains — in the words of head coach Kirk Ferentz — “hit or miss right now.” Iowa ranks 114th (out of 130 FBS teams) in total offense, at 311.5 yards per game.

With the Wisconsin game two Saturdays away (a 7:30 p.m., Fox-televised tilt at Kinnick Stadium), Iowa needs to be clicking on both sides of the ball. So, DVR Monday — Cy-Hawk version — takes a closer look at the offense and defense:

How close is the offense to a breakout?

Quarterback Nate Stanley started Saturday’s win by going 7-of-14 for 29 yards. The rest of the way, he was 9-of-14 for 137 yards. Hit or miss, hot and cold.

A few takeaways from Saturday's game:

Throwing deep is essential: The offense changed after the first time Stanley uncorked a deep pass — a well-placed, 45-yard strike to Ihmir Smith-Marsette in a 3-3 game in the third quarter. That began Stanley’s hotter finish. Suddenly, the tight ends were more open on underneath routes.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley did a nice job avoiding pressure on Saturday against Iowa State, but Hawkeyes offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz needs to attack defense vertically more to get Stanley going more quickly in games.

Stanley's feet need to keep moving: The junior did a really nice job scrambling around for a 6-yard gain on third-and-5 on Iowa’s second drive. He’s got better feet than you’d expect for a guy who stands at 6-foot-4, 242 pounds; he needs to use them.

He stepped up nicely in the pocket on Smith-Marsette’s big-gainer, but he later missed an opportunity to run for at least 10 yards on a rollout. And he was often too quick to throw short passes into tight coverage. His pass protection has been quite good (one sack in two games); he needs to trust it, and allow his receivers more time to break open.

Catching the ball helps: On Iowa’s longest touchdown drive of the season — 83 yards in the fourth quarter to expand the lead to 13-3 — four different receivers made excellent catches. Before that, the biggest thing slowing down this offense had been dropped passes.

A welcome change.

Noah Fant had to adjust but made an athletic 11-yard grab on a ball thrown behind him. Nick Easley’s 15-yard grab in traffic on second-and-16 was one of the game’s quietly important plays. T.J. Hockenson not only prevented an interception but snatched a 7-yard gain between two defenders. And then there was Brandon Smith’s over-the-shoulder, 30-yard grab to set up Mekhi Sargent’s 2-yard TD run.

I do think there’s still a lot to like here. Ferentz pointed out that Iowa’s offense can sometimes get stuck in September. I’ll also say this: Through two games, Iowa has committed one turnover (and none against Iowa State since 2015, by the way). Trusting this defense isn’t a bad idea.

If the offense sputters against FCS Northern Iowa this Saturday (6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network), I'll be more concerned.

"We'll keep swinging the bat, but it will come," Ferentz said. "Guys are working hard, and we've got the right guys."

Speaking of… Here’s your A.J. Epenesa tracker.

Iowa’s sophomore was every bit as dominant as his Big Ten co-defensive player of the week award would suggest. I charted all 24 snaps the backup defensive end played, and here were the results:

Epenesa the cornerback? His first snap of the day befuddled Iowa State quarterback Kyle Kempt on third-and-9. Instead of rushing the passer, Epenesa dropped into coverage to pick up running back David Montgomery — and on the other side, blitzing linebacker Nick Niemann came home with a 9-yard sack. Textbook teamwork.

Two sacks, but should’ve been three: Epenesa’s first official sack was the one that ultimately knocked Kempt out of the game with an injury. His second was an absolute power rush against helpless left tackle Sean Foster, and Epenesa swatted the ball out of backup Zeb Noland’s hand for a turnover. A bad spot cost Epenesa a third sack; he chased down Kempt in the first quarter, but officials generously gave Kempt progress to the line of scrimmage — even though replays showed he should’ve lost a yard.

Twice, Epenesa was tackled by a lineman: Once, it was actually called.

Iowa State began to double-team him: But that backfired, too. On one play, as Epenesa tied up two blockers, teammate Anthony Nelson got held (and it was called) in a one-on-one pass rush on his path to the quarterback.

The final stats: Epenesa played only six first-half snaps. But he gained more traction as the day went on. When he was on the field, Iowa State gained 72 yards on 24 snaps. He had five tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and batted down a pass.

A fine day’s work. A game-changing force on Iowa’s defense is for real.

ICYMI:'Freak' A.J. Epenesa relentless in Iowa's Cy-Hawk win

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley takes a snap from Keegan Render (69) while offensive lineman Ross Reynolds (59) gets set during the Cy-Hawk game on Saturday.

Tristan Wirfs isn’t there yet… But he’s going to be a good one.

Iowa’s offense averaged just 4.2 yards per play, including 2.9 per rush. Tight-end run blocking was subpar. How about the offensive line? DVR Monday felt it was worth a Cy-Hawk breakdown:

LT Alaric Jackson: Was inconsistent in his return from suspension. He power-blocked big holes for Toren Young on Iowa’s first two snaps; a quicker back might’ve skipped through the second one for a big play. He also aimlessly backed into Stanley on the second-quarter play that was initially ruled a fumble (but ruled an incomplete pass on review).

LG Ross Reynolds: A solid but unspectacular day for the fifth-year senior, who probably isn’t getting enough credit.

C Keegan Render: The converted guard hasn’t had a bad exchange with the quarterback this season. He flattened nose guard Jamahl Johnson to give Stanley extra time to find Smith-Marsette for that key 45-yarder.

RGs Cole Banwart and Levi Paulsen: Iowa mixed in Paulsen for 13 snaps in the second quarter, but gave Banwart the other 51. Banwart, probably next year’s starting center, got better as the game went on and was particularly effective on the touchdown drive.

RT Tristan Wirfs: Let’s spend some time here. After the game, Ferentz spoke of Wirfs’ impressive talent and youth as he adjusts to the tempo required in the Big Ten.

“Wirfs looks like an NFL guy," Ferentz said — and he would know. "But he's still learning how to play up front there."

On the film review, it was obvious that Wirfs (6-5, 320) is Iowa’s most impressive lineman. He manhandled Iowa State’s top defensive end, Jaquan Bailey, most of the day.

But on an early second-quarter drive, he also misplays on three consecutive snaps — two that foiled outside runs by Mekhi Sargent; another in pass protection that caused Stanley to get hit.

Overall, though, Wirfs flashed his force and athleticism. This was his first game of 2018 after serving a one-game suspension. His combination of youth and talent is representative of a Hawkeye offense still trying to find its way.

It took a total team effort to stop David Montgomery.

The most hyped player entering this game was a non-factor, thanks to a game plan that was obvious from the start. It took anyone and everyone to tackle No. 32.

On Iowa State’s first drive, Montgomery got six carries. And six different Hawkeyes arrived to make first contact on the future NFL running back.

In order: Amani Hooker, Sam Brincks, Anthony Nelson, Jack Hockaday, Nick Niemann and — most importantly — Djimon Colbert.

The redshirt freshman knifed through a crease in Iowa State’s offensive line to stuff Montgomery at the 1-yard line. Without that play, Montgomery dances in the end zone with a 7-0 Cyclone lead. Instead, the Hawkeye defense wound up being the ones celebrating — after a false-start on fourth-and-goal instead forced a field goal try.

TV cameras captured how much emotion Iowa defenders had in holding Montgomery and Co. out of the end zone — Chauncey Golston and Amani Jones, in particular.

As the day went on, Montgomery went to the ground on first contact. The entire Hawkeye defense roughed him up. He rushed 17 times for 44 yards and had three catches for 15 yards — just 2.95 per touch.


"We just thought, 'We can do it together,'" defensive end Parker Hesse said. "'If we stick together, we’ll be better.' (So) that’s what we did."

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.