Leistikow's Final Thoughts: A.J. Epenesa, Hawkeyes unleash frustration on Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — That player who was the subject of all those snap-count stories … yeah, he had a prominent and powerful role in Iowa’s much-needed victory Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
Sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa had a tackle for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a touchdown, a sack and a blocked punt — all in a scintillating, second-quarter span of 2 minutes — as the Hawkeyes steamrolled Illinois 63-0.
And here you thought I was referring to Noah Fant …
Fant’s lack of playing time at tight end was the hot-button issue that came to a head as part of Iowa’s three-game losing streak. But it was Epenesa’s limited snap count that first had fans crowing earlier this season.
The five-star recruit from Edwardsville, Illinois, showed Saturday why he belongs on the field as much as possible. He’s a big play waiting to happen.
“I was just trying to do my responsibility," Epenesa said. "Getting to the ball is just the main priority as a defensive player.”
Did he ever.
With Iowa leading 14-0, he stripped RaVon Bonner of the football, scooped up the loose pigskin and rumbled 19 yards for his first career touchdown.
On Illinois’ next play, he sacked A.J. Bush for a 5-yard loss. (Epenesa later added a half sack, giving him 8½ for the season — the most by any Hawkeye since Mike Daniels’ nine in 2011).
Then, on a fourth-and-1, as Iowa left the majority of its base defense on the field for an Illinois punt, Epenesa plowed into the backfield and swatted away the boot with his right hand. Nick Niemann recovered, and Nate Stanley’s 11-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Hockenson on the next play made it 28-0 with 11:43 remaining in the second quarter.
“That completely changed momentum," fellow defensive end Parker Hesse said. "You could feel the game totally broke wide-open for us.”
Epenesa is an impressive difference-maker. Big plays tend to happen when he’s on the field. That was the theme of the day for the Hawkeyes, as Fant was given a prominent role (playing on Iowa’s first 25 offensive snaps and scoring the first touchdown) as well.
While playing in front of more than 100 family and friends who made the trip to Memorial Stadium, Epenesa finished with eight tackles (a monster total for a defensive end), 3½ for losses, those 1½ sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a blocked punt, a quarterback hurry, a pass breakup.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has preached for patience among an eager fan base wanting to see more from Epenesa. That's why Hesse and Anthony Nelson (both outstanding players as well) are the starters. But Ferentz understands he's got something special brewing in Epenesa, and that's why his playing time keeps ticking up.
“I know we all want to microwave everything in this society and in sports, but he’s a guy who’s just gaining ground as we go along," Ferentz said. "And he’s learning how to play. He’s getting better every week.”
Come Monday, look for Epenesa to at least earn a share of Big Ten defensive player of the week honors for the second time this season. And look for him to earn his first career start … in the 2019 season opener.
Kyle Groeneweg deserved this senior moment. He has been a nice revelation this season at punt returner. But the fifth-year senior understandably caught flak for having a hand in two special-teams miscues that led to Iowa’s crushing Sept. 22 loss to Wisconsin.
So when he craftily eluded defenders and raced 61 yards for a punt-return touchdown in the early stages of the third quarter, it became a moment he would never forget.
The product of West Lyon High School was a Division II player for three years at Sioux Falls, South Dakota, before deciding he would walk on at Iowa for a shot at playing a season of Big Ten Conference football.
“It meant a lot. It was kind of a weight lifted off your shoulders," Groeneweg said. "We always have high expectations for ourselves as a punt-return unit and special teams in general.”
And in another interesting wrinkle: Fifth-year, Iowa-born senior Riley McCarron in 2016 recorded his first career punt-return touchdown here at Memorial Stadium (that one was 55 yards).
Nick Niemann resurfaced in a slightly retooled Iowa defense. The sophomore had been mostly on the sidelines since a Week 4 knee injury. After he became healthy, he was still on the bench, with Amani Hooker having largely taken over at outside linebacker — because of the propensity of spread offenses the Hawkeyes face.
But on Saturday, Niemann was rotating with Djimon Colbert at Iowa’s weak-side linebacker. It was a move Niemann said has been a few weeks in the making.
“We kind of just agreed it would be good to get for me to try to get more acclimated in the box," said Niemann, who finished with four tackles and returned that Epenesa blocked punt for seven yards.
Afterward, Ferentz also said it was a positive move — as it allowed the Hawkeyes to get one of their better players on the field. A terrific concept.
It seems Iowa dodged a big injury to its right tackle. The scene didn’t look good when 320-pound sophomore Tristan Wirfs crumpled to the ground after Toren Young’s 5-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
But it was a mild right-ankle sprain, and Ferentz didn't seem concerned it would keep him out for extended time. With Wirfs out, redshirt freshman Mark Kallenberger and true freshman Jack Plumb were among those to get reps at right tackle.
The 100-yard rushing drought is over. It took until the fourth quarter, but Mekhi Sargent became the first Hawkeye to top 100 yards in a game all season. The sophomore finished with 17 carries for 121 yards. His 29-yarder in the fourth quarter was Iowa's longest running play since the season opener.
“Happy for him. Happy to see him get that," Ferentz said. "Especially the latter part, with some young guys blocking for him.”
Add that to the list of positive things the Hawkeyes (7-4, 4-4 Big Ten) accomplished Saturday.
Players gave Ferentz the game ball Saturday. This was Ferentz's 150th win as Iowa's coach. In a season that started with him passing a legend in Hayden Fry (at 143), the 20th-year head Hawkeye hit another milestone Saturday.
“I wish it had come a little sooner maybe, huh?" Ferentz said. "That’d have been better.”
And by the way: It was the biggest margin of victory by a Ferentz-coached team, period.
That's saying something.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.