Leistikow: Opener reveals a brand new world for A.J. Epenesa and the Hawkeye defense

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — When Miami (Ohio) sent its offense onto the Kinnick Stadium turf for the first time from its own 36-yard line, A.J. Epenesa felt a little strange trotting out there with the Iowa defense.

Until Saturday night, Epenesa had begun games watching his defensive teammates from the sideline. But this was the first start of this college career, and what happened next was indicative of the new football world the junior defensive end was attacking head-on.

“I felt like when a baby deer comes out, kind of stumbling,” Epenesa said following the Hawkeyes’ 38-14 win. “I felt a little wobbly in the first series.”

Nerves from the projected top-10 NFL Draft pick?

Perhaps Epenesa was sensing the new demands on his shoulders and increased attention from opposing offenses.

It was obvious that Miami had spent time planning for the reigning sack king of the Big Ten Conference. Epenesa was met routinely by at least two blockers — often a chip block from a tight end, then a one-on-one battle with left tackle Tommy Doyle. At times, he would have three players in white jerseys making sure he couldn’t rattle or injure Miami freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert.

The RedHawks clearly had been instructed to know where No. 94 was, at all times.

“I’ve got to get used to that. It’s a difficult thing to handle,” Epenesa said after his first game as an every-down defensive end. “But you see players handle it all the time and still have success. I’m still going to hold myself to the same standards and build on this week and learn and just get better next week.”

A.J. Epenesa (94) was limited to one tackle in Iowa's 38-14 win, despite playing the most snaps of his career.

A year ago, Epenesa filled the stat sheet on a weekly basis. He racked up 10½ sacks, the highest total for any Hawkeye in nine years, and 16½ tackles for loss. He frequently caused turnovers, including a game-changing strip sack in the Outback Bowl upset of Mississippi State. He had a blocked punt and a touchdown on separate plays at Illinois.

So in the big debut of what everyone expects to be a monster junior year, Epenesa's stat line was...

One measly assisted tackle.

And yet, objectively speaking, he was the biggest game-changer on Iowa’s defense Saturday night.

► Get more in our Hawk Central Postgame Podcast:Iowa 38, Miami (Ohio) 14

Epenesa forced Miami to play 9-on-10 football. And as he found his footing, so did the Hawkeyes’ defense. Iowa limited Miami to just 59 rushing yards (2.4 a carry) and 245 overall. Although Iowa wound up with just one interception (a late snag by Michael Ojemudia), there were opportunities for several more as Epenesa still found a way to hurry Gabbert's throws. Geno Stone barely missed a pick-six. Matt Hankins could have had at least one interception. Kaevon Merriweather, too.

“If they want to double-team, that's two checkers for one, right?” coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward. “... I think that's a good thing. That's going to be part of the deal, and he'll have to live with that.”

A.J. Epenesa, right, chases down Miami quarterback Brett Gabbert during the Hawkeyes' 38-14 win Saturday night.

Epenesa supporters who have wanted to see the former five-star recruit get more snaps certainly got their wish Saturday.

A year ago, Iowa treated its defensive line like a hockey team — line changes of four in, four out at a time.

Saturday, the Hawkeyes rode their first-teamers hard. Epenesa was in on 49 of Miami’s 52 snaps, finally getting a rest for the three-play mop-up series late in the fourth quarter.

“It felt like practice,” said Epenesa, a powerful and athletic 6-foot-6, 280 pounds. “You’re breathing hard out there, but your body’s not really that tired.

“To get out there and continue to keep going, it’s a lot of fun. But it’s different.”

► Leistikow's final thoughts Saturday night:Second-half Hawkeyes were a promising, dominating bunch

One game in, so much for the popular theory that more Epenesa snaps would mean even bigger numbers.

Despite the most playing time of his career, this was the first time in 10 games (Week 5 last year against Minnesota) that Epenesa failed to record a tackle for loss.

As the Epenesa treatment came up in Ferentz’s postgame press conference, longtime KWWL broadcaster Rick Coleman interjected that it reminded him of what Adrian Clayborn faced in 2010. After his 11½-sack season of 2009, Clayborn was held to 3½ as a senior — yet still was a first-round NFL draft pick in 2011.

"That's the curse of being a good player: Sometimes that happens," Ferentz chimed in. "But that should free some other things up for the other guys."

Sack totals don't always reflect a player’s true impact.

Saturday was a great example of that.

And, for Epenesa, this:

“I’ve got to get used to it,” he said. “It’s going to be the way of life now.”

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.