Hawkeye defensive end Anthony Nelson 'sets the tone' in win over Minnesota

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Parker Hesse sensed all week that his partner in mayhem, Anthony Nelson, was about to have a big game.

Nelson, Iowa’s junior defensive end, did not disappoint Saturday in a 48-31 victory over Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium.

“Sometimes, you look at him in the stance and you think, ‘Man, this is going to be a good rush,’” Hesse said of Nelson. “You just get that feeling, being around him.”

Nelson snuffed Minnesota’s opening drive with a third-down sack of quarterback Zack Annexstad.

Hesse blew up the second possession by sniffing out a screen pass, fighting through a would-be block and bringing down Mohamed Ibrahim for a 4-yard loss.

Nelson took over again in the second quarter, with back-to-back sacks that forced another punt.

By the time the Gophers’ offense found any rhythm, they were in a Nelson-sized hole that was too much overcome.

Nelson stands at 6-foot-7, 271 pounds. That’s a big hole.

Oct 6, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Zack Annexstad (5) is sacked by Iowa Hawkeyes defensive end Anthony Nelson (98) in the first quarter at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

“We had great coverage in the back end. We had four guys rushing in their lanes and I just got lucky on a couple of them,” Nelson said modestly after his career-best three-sack day.

It could have been more, but the Gophers were intent on double-teaming Nelson after his early havoc. Even so, he nearly got to Annexstad after pushing two offensive linemen toward the retreating Gophers’ freshman in the second half. Instead, linebacker Amani Jones got that sack, a step ahead of Nelson.

Iowa had five sacks in all, and has 18 for the season. Nelson entered Saturday’s game with two of those sacks, but that was relatively quiet production for a player who had 14.5 of them in his first two seasons.

Hesse said he never sensed that Nelson was frustrated through the first four games.

“He set the tone (Saturday). It’s just something a lot of us were talking about, just watching him work this week. We liked the matchup and he did a tremendous job of getting us going in this game, getting us out to an early lead and we were able to play from ahead even with the mistakes that we made throughout the entire game,” Hesse said.

Nelson, who was born in Minnesota but grew up in Urbandale, had plenty of family on hand to watch him make life miserable for Annexstad. His father, Jeff, is a native of Minnesota but also went to Iowa, where he was also a defensive lineman.

Nelson acknowledged that was “cool,” and that he was looking forward to seeing them all after the game, before the Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten Conference) flew back south to prepare for Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff at Indiana (4-2, 1-2).

The Hoosiers have allowed just nine sacks this season. Nelson was already looking ahead to the challenges that await, and lamenting the fact that his defense allowed 31 points to Minnesota. The Gophers scored two touchdowns after turnovers gave them the football inside Iowa’s 10-yard line.

“We definitely have a lot of room to grow,” Nelson said of the defense. “It doesn’t really matter the situation we’re in, we expect to stop them. We expect to get off the field with no points. And we weren’t able to do that. … We’re going to be picking things (when watching the film) that we need to get better at.”

Sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa entered the game leading Iowa with four sacks. He has been a fan favorite since arriving as a five-star recruit last summer.

Hesse, a senior, made his 39th start Saturday. One of the rocks of the Hawkeyes' defense, he began the day with 17 tackles, the most among the trio of ends that coach Kirk Ferentz noted “are tough to block one-on-one.”

“Anthony’s got a real ability to rush the passer, and he’s rounded out his game really nicely,” Ferentz added.

Hesse said he’s long been impressed by how much Nelson analyzes opponents and his own play. It’s a trait they share, and they exchange notes frequently.

“Every single drive, we’re talking about what we got, how we played it, how we want to play it,” Hesse said.

“It just comes down to (this): He’s thinking about it all the time, and that’s what allows him to outwork and put himself in positions to really dominate people. You just know it’s a matter of time before he gets a matchup, he gets in a game and takes over.”

Just ask the Gophers.